You might not get to be a rock star even if you’ve got Lucifer’s own ego, but if you ain’t got it, forget it. Three first-rate L.A. Film Fest documentaries poke windows into the pride that goeth before the rises and the falls.
Though few will wet their pillows over Metallica’s sorrows, Some Kind of Monster puts you eye to human eye with struggling creatures neither fully god nor fully beast. All-access filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky — who walked us through the Memphis 3 saga of murder and heavy metal in the two Paradise Lost documentaries — find the band wondering, after a long layoff, whether to lasso their reluctant muses or say goodbye. Main songwriter James Hetfield is a fidgeting drunk who hangs things up by splitting for rehab, abdicating the egomaniac co-regency to drummer Lars Ulrich. The attendant power games — and ongoing group-therapy sessions with “performance-enhancement coach” Phil Towle — make for tense entertainment: Ulrich seizes the whip; Hetfield cowers; bassist Jason Newsted quits; guitarist Kirk Hammett retreats to Buddhahood; and managers, producers, label lords, media creeps, family and original axman Dave Mustaine show up to tear the meat. Somehow, the mysterious Metallica ectoplasm births a great album (2003’s St. Anger) and even leaves some of the best songs on the takeout reel, all under the national socialism of Ulrich, who dictates, slurps beer in front of a dry Hetfield, and gulps champagne whilst auctioning his world-class art collection amid the kind of posh snobs Metallica used to call enemy. Talent and desire can work magic, even if the magic’s black.
And that, if Paul Green has his way, will be the fate of the Philly kids he teaches in his Rock School (real-life inspiration for Richard Linklater’s Jack Black flick School of Rock). Nothing if not fearless, Green lets docman Don Argott catch him screaming bloody motivation into the 9-to-17-year-old future Tony Iommis who bash away at “Sweet Leaf” in a cloud of stage smoke. Green: “Do you love Satan?” Kid: “Yes?” Green himself is a failed musician who admits, “I invented something new so I could be the best at it.” And his fear treatment gets damned good results, steering impressionable youths away from the pitfalls of Sheryl Crow and Limp Bizkit and into impressive executions of the most difficult Zappa charts. The fact that Green is a ruthless dick is less of a problem than you might think: All the children, even the one who’s repeatedly attempted suicide, stay far saner than their mentor. But then, sanity could stand between them and Greatness.
Like egotism, insanity is only an aid to show-biz success, not a guarantee of it, as you’ll learn from Ondi Timoner’s Dig!, which tells the tale of two bands, over a period of years. The Brian Jonestown Massacre is an L.A. collective led by Anton Newcombe, a severely disturbed individual with a dipso-suicide dad, an overwhelmed mom, an obsession with ’60s music/sideburns, and 50 percent more confidence than talent. Portland’s Dandy Warhols are led by the narrator of the film, Courtney Taylor, who wants to be Anton but lacks the madness. Cutting back/forth/together, Timoner smoothly tracks the transition from friendship to rivalry, as one party massacres itself while the other ascends on its dandy charm. Without straining, Dig! touchingly marks the lines between cult idol and pop star; you may never think of Syd Barrett or Elliott Smith in the same way again. And the players are so tangible, so attractive and so much what they are that Dig! may inspire a pop cult itself, perhaps improbably succeeding in making hipness hip again.
The virtues of these productions highlight the main fault of “reality” TV: It tries to make fantasy figures out of actual humans, thereby distracting audiences from the profound experiences of their own lives. A patiently filmed, well-edited documentary, on the other hand, can’t help but wake you up to what ought to be obvious: Drama is based on life, not the reverse.
METALLICA: SOME KIND OF MONSTER | Directed and produced by JOE BERLINGER and BRUCE SINOFSKY | At the Ford Amphitheater, Sunday, June 20, 8:30 p.m.
ROCK SCHOOL | Directed by DON ARGOTT | Produced by ARGOTT & SHEENA M. JOYCE | At Laemmle Sunset 5, Friday, June 18, 7:30 p.m.; DGA Theater 2, Monday, June 21, 5:30 p.m.
DIG! | Directed and produced by ONDI TIMONER | At DGA Theater 1, Friday, June 25, 9:45 p.m.