“The Story of _”

If you have any sort of investment in Rush, then seeing Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage is imperative. Great footage, good, simple storytelling, charismatic subjects. But behind the music (it premiered on VH1, after all) is a pretty flat story.

Strangely, beyond Neil Peart’s dark broodings, the movie’s “plot” is that they’re three friends who really love playing music together. So all we’re left with is a fairly dry chronicle of their albums with a heartwarming tale of friendship as its vehicle.

For a band as huge as Rush, the question isn’t, “what does this tell us about Rush?” but “what does Rush want to tell us about themselves?” Aside from a somewhat endearing Canadian humbleness, Rush has little tale to tell. For all the grandeur in their music and epic storytelling in their lyrics, there’s not much that happens ‘against all odds’ in Rush’s past. They got some bad reviews for a while. Critics didn’t like them almost ever. Neil Peart disappeared for a while after some devastating personal tragedies. Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage is a story about friendship and tenacity.

But little demonstrates tenacity like Anvil.

A still-totally obscure metal band, Anvil were there from the beginning, releasing their first album in 1981. Highly influential, but mostly forgotten by anyone who wasn’t paying attention at the time, Anvil still record and gig as ever. Their story was recently well documented in the movie Anvil! The Story of Anvil.

Rush and Anvil have really similar histories: two early rock bands from around Toronto, innovators in their sounds, started by a pair of best friends (Lee & Lifeson became Rush, Kudlow & Reiner became Anvil) who grew up playing music together. Their histories diverge quickly after the release of their first albums. Even if you dislike Rush, you can probably name a few of their hits without much pause. If you even knew the name Anvil before their documentary, you’re pretty rare.

Throughout Anvil! The Story of Anvil, the question of why they didn’t become more successful is frequently raised. The answer is pretty obvious. Though they were innovators, they didn’t continue to innovate. I don’t think we can blame them for not evolving. And by that, I don’t mean they failed to follow trends or rejected insincere change for its own sake. I mean that they just kept belting out the same sound over and over. And didn’t seem to get better at it.

Rush, however, took risk after risk. Some were incredible innovations (synthesizers!). Some were painfully bad (synthesizers?).

While Anvil didn’t by any means sell out, their failure to adapt or evolve would have been the death of any other lesser, less tenacious band. The climax of the film (sans denouement) is the implication that they are now in force, playing to a full house with a slick, new Tsangarides-produced album at the merch booth.

It’s always hard to know how much a film crew affects their subjects. Anvil! has a happy ending, but how much is the happy ending determined by the fact that a VH1 crew had been following them around, and VH1 Classic Records released the album they made during the shoot? VH1 is no small thing. While VH1/MTV seem to point a camera at every pop cultural moment that memes, a full documentary that spans months proves that someone with money is serious about the outcome. Perhaps to the degree that the outcome is somewhat engineered. Like a reality show.

Though it feels less down-to-earth, Metallica: Some Kind of Monster is far more interesting. Unlike Rush and Anvil!, SKoM is not a chronicle of Metallica’s rise-fall-and-rise. It’s a documentary about one of the world’s biggest rock bands going into therapy – a story that has never and may never be told again.

Metallica, for all of its machismo and bravado, images of violence and power, often lay the soul bare. And maybe that’s their hidden strength – their weakness. Songs like “Battery” and “The Four Horsemen” are brutally exhilarating, but note that their biggest hits are tracks like “One” and “The Unforgiven” that are focused on subjective, inner pain.

Their movie, their self-funded documentary makes them look like fragile, simpering teenagers. It’s mostly embarrassing to watch Lars Ulrich repeatedly ask himself and answer his own questions as if his only ability to communicate is via auto-interview. James Hetfield’s struggle with alcohol abuse is awkward – as it should be. Bob Rock and Kirk Hammett mostly get walked over by the Hetfield/Ulrich machine. Phil Towle, their coach is in a perpetual state of crossing professional lines.

The only person who really comes through doesn’t appear until long into the film – Robert Trujillo. Amiable. Untainted.

SKoM ends on a somewhat triumphant note, like Anvil!, walking out onto stage to huge numbers, but SKoM isn’t really a story of triumph. It’s just a story of people who struggle very publicly. In the end, Metallica’s album “St. Anger” isn’t really that different from “Ride the Lightning”. Not in terms of sound, but in terms of what they communicate – a very ‘at the limits’ look at the polarities of masculinity. Examinations of the extremes of rage and regret.

So we get, not just a story of a band struggling to continue on their path (like Anvil), but a performance of where masculinity begins to breakdown. It’s a demonstration of the fine line between marching forward to triumph and towards self-destruction.

It’s messy. SKoM is a mess of rage, father issues, male entitlement and creative frustration, and that’s what makes it so beautifully unsatisfying. By the end, our heroes are back on stage with a new, kick-ass bass player, sobered-up, new album and back on course. But, despite all of the life-coaching, James is still struggling with addiction and Lars is still a dick who gives us no Freudian self-realization narrative to gnaw on.

Aside from the story itself, the real brilliance about Metallica: Some Kind of Monster is that Metallica funded a movie that makes them look terrible. When we watch Kudlow of Anvil weeping, coming unfurled, frustrated with himself and the world as he records his last-shot album, we see a man against himself and no one else. To allow his beautiful shame be documented is pretty typical in a media saturated with reality television, but it still feels genuine and vulnerable.

But when we see Metallica fight amongst themselves in what are essentially therapy sessions, everyone is simultaneously at the edge of their nerves and totally composed under the camera’s gaze. It’s fucking painful to watch. What’s harder to watch than a grown man cry is a room full of grown men refusing to cry. It’s far more desperate.

Meanwhile, behind those closed tear ducts and behind those inflexible attitudes is a huge corporation in danger of toppling. When James and Lars cross swords, hundreds of people are in danger of losing their livelihood.

Which is why we love Metallica. We see a strange beauty in the tensions between power and emotion. A chaotic, mesmerizing beauty.

~ by marckate on April 27, 2011.

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