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Rock History: Ray Charles '53 Rehearsal

In memory of the late, great R&B singer, rock historian Ed Ward gives us a guided tour of a famous Ray Charles studio rehearsal tape, circa 1953.

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Other segments from the episode on July 16, 2004

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, July 16, 2004: Interview with Jeff Bridges; Commentary on Ray Charles studio rehearsal tape; Interview with Isaac Asimov; Review of the documentary film “Metallica: some…

Transcript

DATE July 16, 2004 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Jeff Bridges talks about his work and his new book,
a compilation of movie-set photographs, called "Pictures"
DAVE DAVIES, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily
News, sitting in for Terry Gross.

Our guest, Jeff Bridges, is famous for his work in front of the camera, in
films such as "The Last Picture Show," "The Fabulous Baker Boys," "The Fisher
King," "The Big Lebowski" and "Seabiscuit." He's starring in a new film with
Kim Basinger, "The Door in the Floor," based on a novel by John Irving.
Bridges plays a philandering children's book author whose family is torn by
tragedy. Things get more complicated when they invite an aspiring young
writer into their vacation home. Basinger plays Bridges' wife. Here they are
making plans.

(Soundbite of "The Door in the Floor")

Mr. JEFF BRIDGES: Look at this yard. Actually, clear out some of these
scraggly looking flower beds--I want to put in a swimming pool.

Ms. KIM BASINGER: Why?

Mr. BRIDGES: Oh, for Ruth, when she gets older, something like the one we
had in Providence. They loved it. And the lawn--that'll be more like an
athletic field.

Ms. BASINGER: No.

Mr. BRIDGES: Look at this picture.

Ms. BASINGER: Who is he?

Mr. BRIDGES: It's Minty O'Hare's son, the boys' English teacher from Exeter.
He wants a summer job. Wants to be a writer.

Ms. BASINGER: What would he do for you?

Mr. BRIDGES: Oh, it's mainly for the experience, I suppose. I mean, if he's
thinking about becoming a writer, he should see how one works, see what it
takes.

Ms. BASINGER: What would he actually do for you?

DAVIES: Jeff Bridges has also done work behind the camera, which is presented
in his book, "Pictures." When he's on the set of a movie, he takes pictures
behind the scenes and then makes a book of these photos, which he presents to
the people he's worked with after the film has wrapped.

The foreword of the book, "Pictures," is written by Peter Bogdanovich, who
directed Bridges in "The Last Picture Show" and its sequel, "Texasville." He
writes that Bridges' photos `convey the very essence of what making movies
looks and feels like: haphazard, messy, profoundly private and lonely.'

Most of the photos are of actors, directors and crew members, but one photo in
the book is of Texan Rusty Lindeman. Bridges took the picture while he was
making "Texasville." Terry spoke to Bridges last fall and asked him to tell
the story behind the picture.

Mr. BRIDGES: The wardrobe designer was fired about a week before we started
shooting, and my character had no costume whatsoever. We had nothing locked
in, and the first day of shooting was one of those days that are small, little
scenes kind of scattered throughout the entire movie, so it's really going
to--in that first day, I'm going to establish all of my wardrobe. And here I
am in my trailer, trying to figure out on that first day what I'm going to
wear, and I hear a knock...

(Soundbite of knocking)

Mr. BRIDGES: ...and I say, `I'm coming!' and I open the door, and standing
there is a Western-looking fellow. He's got a, you know, cowboy hat on and
kind of work clothes, and the fellow says, `Hi. My name's Rusty Lindeman. I
own this ranch that you're shooting on, and I just wanted to let you know that
anything I can do to help you, you let me know.' And I looked at him for a
second, and said, `Can I have your clothes?'

TERRY GROSS, host:

Yeah.

Mr. BRIDGES: Yeah. And he said, `Why, sure,' and he proceeded to come in
and take off his clothes, because I was playing a wealthy oilman who's
exactly, you know, a fellow like Rusty, and he, you know, gave me his clothes.
We switched clothes. I did the first shot in his clothes, and then at lunch
break, I went over to his house and went through his closet, and he gave me
all of his clothes. So that was like--and there's a shot of, actually, Rusty
in the book, and that was like, you know, an angel sent from heaven.

GROSS: So did you fit into his clothes?

Mr. BRIDGES: Perfectly. It was just bizarre, you know? And I said, `And
can I have those pens in your pocket and all those papers?' and he says, `Oh,
yeah, whatever I can do.'

GROSS: Now there's a picture of the Coen brothers trying to figure out how to
get your head stuffed in a toilet...

Mr. BRIDGES: Oh!

GROSS: ...without breaking your teeth...

Mr. BRIDGES: Right.

GROSS: ...and that was about what?

Mr. BRIDGES: Well, that's a shot in "The Big Lebowski," towards the
beginning of the movie, where these two hoodlums take my body and shove my
head into a toilet, and we're trying to figure out how we're going to do this
scene without, you know, breaking my teeth on the porcelain, and so this is a
shot of the guys trying to figure that out, how we're going to--are we going
to, you know, stick my head in the toilet and reverse it, or--you know,
reverse the film, you know? How are we going to get, you know, the illusion
that this is all happening at full speed?

GROSS: How did you do it?

Mr. BRIDGES: We just did it, finally, I think. We just, you know, worked it
out. A lot of those things are kind of like, you know, choreographing a dance
or something, and you work with the other actors, and, you know, the illusion
is that they're taking me, but in fact, I'm taking them, you know, and they're
just holding on to my body, and I'm guiding my own head and responsible for my
own safety, and I grab on to the toilet and put my head in.

GROSS: Is one of the reasons that you take these photographs to keep the down
time interesting when you're making a movie? There are such long stretches
where you're just waiting for the lights or...

Mr. BRIDGES: Yeah.

GROSS: ...whatever sun-up you need.

Mr. BRIDGES: There's an aspect of that, of just entertaining myself. You
know, some people will knit sweaters or read books, and I take these
photographs. And it's wonderful getting them back, you know, from the lab.
You see the proof sheets, and, you know, it's like opening up a, you know,
Christmas present. It's wonderful.

There's another aspect to it. I was talking to my mom the other day, and I
think she was kind of inspirational to me. She has kept a journal for many,
many years. I think it's been going on about 70 years now, and I think that's
where I kind of got hooked on this idea of, you know, recording your life.
She does it, you know, through the written word, and I'm doing it now through
my photography, and it's just personal, you know. When I look through this
book, it brings these moments rushing back to me, and it's wonderful to feel
that, you know, to have spent such intense times with people that--you know,
you'll be, you know, with them for 10 weeks and then maybe you won't see them
ever again, but you'll have a photograph to look at, and it brings all those
memories rushing back.

And also, you know, you look at--looking through the book, and there's so many
returned, you know, visits of people that, you know, you work with often, you
know, for one reason or another, and sometimes I get the feeling it's like
different incarnations. Now you're, you know, someone else. It's funny.

GROSS: Are actors and actresses usually comfortable about you taking their
photos on the set, when they're not made up or when they're not in costume?
Is anyone ever afraid it's going to ruin their image because it's not the kind
of, you know, made-up celebrity face that they're putting forward?

Mr. BRIDGES: Yeah. I usually make a--not an announcement, but I ask--it
starts with the producer and then the director and then the actors, usually at
the first read-through of the script--if anyone minds or would like me to take
photographs, you know; if they don't want me to do it, I won't do it, and with
the actors, you know, particularly, I can--you know, being an actor myself,
can understand what their feelings are. Whenever a camera's pointed at you,
it's kind of a funny feeling, you know, and it can be...

GROSS: Well, especially because there are so many tabloid photographers that
are trying to get...

Mr. BRIDGES: That's right.

GROSS: ...people when they're off-guard...

Mr. BRIDGES: Yeah.

GROSS: ...and make them look bad, embarrass them.

Mr. BRIDGES: Yeah. Yeah, that's right. And I say, you know, `If you just
give me a little look, I'll be very sensitive to it and, you know, not take a
picture.' All the photographs in the book were approved by everyone whose,
you know, picture was taken, and, you know, everyone was kind enough to lend
their image to the book. But as far as making them feel uncomfortable,
usually throughout the show, I'll start to get film back, and I'll show it to
them, and they'll kind of get excited about having some of these memories
captured, and, you know, they'll be into it.

GROSS: When you're taking pictures on the set of actors in their off moments,
do some of the actors who you're taking pictures of want to stay in character,
while other actors don't?

Mr. BRIDGES: Yeah, a few do. A few want to stay in character. I'll find
most of them don't, really. You know, most of them kind of, you know, drop
it, and then when the cameras are rolling, you know, they're well prepared, so
they can kick into it. But they, you know, give your body a rest. I find to
hold that intense thing can be counterproductive often, for me, anyway.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Have you taken photographs of actors who insist on remaining
in character even when they're not in front of the camera?

Mr. BRIDGES: Gee, I don't know, you know. It's also kind of hard to
separate that idea, this notion of staying in character and not in character.
I remember doing an interview once, and it was when I playing a sociopath
of--I don't know you if saw the movie "Jagged Edge"...

GROSS: Right.

Mr. BRIDGES: ...but he wasn't a very nice fellow. I mean, apparently, he
was nice, but when you got to know the guy, you found some terrible,
despicable things about him. And an interviewer asked me that question, you
know, whether you--`Do you stay in character or not? You know, when you're
finished working when come home, are you in character?' And I said, `No, not
really.' And my wife happened to be in the room, and she said, `Oh.' I
sa--she rolled her eyes and kind of cleared her throat. And I said, `What are
you talking about? Why are you giving me that reaction?' And she says, `You
may not know it, but yeah, you carry a lot of that character around.'

And I think that goes for most actors, and I think it does go for me, too, is
that there's an unconscious preparation that you're not even aware of. And
so, you know, a lot of that character is with you all the time and you're not
even aware of it. And so these photographs of people, you know, that you
take--I'm not really aware if they're in character or not or how much is them,
how much is the character. It's a fuzzy line.

GROSS: You know, I'm wondering since you've documented so much of your work
through these on-the-set photographs that you've taken, how were important
occasions documented in your family when you were growing up? You know, the
birthdays, the holidays, the graduations. Were there a lot of still
photographs or home movies?

Mr. BRIDGES: You know, there were home movies and still photographs, I don't
think any more than a, you know, normal family would have. And probably like
most families, you know, they stay in the cupboard. You don't look at them
too much for some reason. I don't know why. But I'd like to--just your
asking me that question makes me want to go home and break them all out and
look at them all.

GROSS: If you still have the technology to play them back.

Mr. BRIDGES: Yeah, there you go. Absolutely. Get your Beta stuff going.

GROSS: Because your father was in the movie and television business himself,
did he, like, really direct them?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BRIDGES: Actually, now that you mention it, one really fond memory comes
to mind. This is, like, maybe, oh--well, maybe about 10 years ago. My family
had a place up in Bear Valley, California, where we would all muster up there
and have a, you know, great time together. And one day, we're looking for my
dad and nobody can find him. And we finally--he's locked into his bedroom and
we're all concerned, and he's saying, `Don't bother me! Don't bother me!'

And finally, you know, about four hours later, he comes out and he says,
`Please, I want you all to assemble at the table, the dining room table.' And
we all gather around and we're expecting him to read a will or something; we
don't know what he's going to do. And he says, `My young grandson Dylan has
requested that we film a version of "Robin Hood." And so I have taken this
time and been in my--locked myself in the room and I've written a script that
we will do,' and he proceeded to direct this version of "Robin Hood." And we
did it all very seriously and it was so funny how seriously we all approached
it, you know, my brother, myself, my wife and all our kids--you know, we're
all in it. And my dad took it, you know, the most serious of all. And he got
in a--I remember, a big fight with my wife because he had all his grandkids
out in the snow in peasant wardrobe, you know...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Right.

Mr. BRIDGES: ...and my wife was saying, `The kids are going to freeze out
there.' And my dad, you know, blew up and said, `Oh, I'm trying to make a
film, for God's sake!' It was just wild. And we have it all on--and my
nephew Casey, Beau's son, was the cinema-photographer on this epic. And of
course, the best footage is all the behind-the-scenes stuff which he very
smartly filmed as well.

DAVIES: Jeff Bridges speaking with Terry Gross after the publication of his
book of photographs is called "Pictures." We'll hear more of their interview
after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: Let's get back to Terry's interview with actor Jeff Bridges. He's
currently starring in the new film "The Door in the Floor." He talked with
Terry about his collection of photographs.

GROSS: We started this interview talking about what it looks like on the set,
behind the camera. You were on the set when you were a kid because your
father, Lloyd Bridges, was making movies...

Mr. BRIDGES: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...and making TV shows and would sometimes bring you along. What did
the set look like to you from a child's point of view?

Mr. BRIDGES: Oh, gosh. The image that I have--and I wish I had a camera
back in those days--was going to visit my father on a Western. And I used to
love it when he would be in Westerns because he would always come home and
he'd have all the boots and chaps and all that kind of stuff. And I remember
dressing up in all that.

But in this particular day, I went to visit him on the set and he was supposed
to be on horse with a bunch of other guys, like a posse or something like
that. And, of course, the horses would be too unruly and would move, so they
put all these actors on ladders and with little reins attached to the ladders,
you know. And for some reason, that image of these grown men, you know,
pretending to be cowboys on these ladders just cracked me up, and they had to
remove me from the set...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BRIDGES: ...because I just couldn't keep it together.

GROSS: Your father died a few years ago. Do you ever, like, accidentally run
into an old movie or TV show of his? You know, run into an old movie on TV
and suddenly, you know, from out of the blue there, you're just kind of seeing
him in action?

Mr. BRIDGES: Oh, yeah. It's so great to have that happen, you know,
whenever it does, especially any films that we did together...

GROSS: Sure.

Mr. BRIDGES: ...'cause we had such great, great times. You know, my dad was
such an amazing cat, this guy. He loved making movies so much, and unlike a
lot of entertainers or, you know, motion picture or any kind of actors, I
guess, he encouraged all his kids to go into show business. And, you know,
any time that there was a part in any of his films or, you know, his TV shows
where there was a part, he always, you know, asked if we wanted to be in it.
That was great news for us because that meant us getting out of school back in
those days.

But his enthusiasm for the work was probably the most important thing I
learned from him, and this enthusiasm was contagious. You know, whenever he
walked on the set, you would just get this idea, `You know, this guy loves
what he's doing and, hey, we're doing it with him. And, hey, this is kind of
fun. We're getting off on this thing. This is great.' And everyone's level
of work would raise a notch whenever he would come around.

But there are so many different ways to approach the work, and there are some
actors who don't like to really relate to the other actors on a personal
level. They like to kind of stay in character, you know. And you can get
some great work that way, too. But my father's way was a little different.
He kind of considered everyone a part of the family, you know. And...

GROSS: Well, you say that's your way, too, in the book...

Mr. BRIDGES: Yeah.

GROSS: ...that you don't relate to people in character when you're on the
set. You want to really to get to know them, and that you think that might
help you also in the filming.

Mr. BRIDGES: Right. Because you can bring those real feelings into the
work. You know, even if you're playing--you know, maybe you really like a
person off the camera, but you know, when you're making the movie, you're
supposed to be enemies. He's supposed to be your kind of nemesis or whatever.
Well, that doesn't really matter, you know. I think that when you get to know
somebody, you've got more ammo to work with. You know, if you want to piss
him off or tease him or, you know--and then you also have this safety ground
that, you know, `This person knows that I really care for him, so I can afford
to, you know, really tear into it,' you know.

GROSS: In closing, I would like you to describe the picture that's on the
cover of your new book.

Mr. BRIDGES: Ah. Yeah. That's a shot from "The Fabulous Baker Boys," one
of my favorite movies, largely because it was a movie I did with my brother
Beau. And this is the first day of shooting, and it was in the men's room, so
the shot is filled with latrines. And I'm about to--when I put down my camera
there, which you can see me holding while I take a picture of Beau; you can
see us both in the mirror. I'm about to put that camera down and spray that
black fake hair on his head.

GROSS: Oh.

Mr. BRIDGES: I don't know if you've seen that movie or not, but it was that
scene that we were filming.

And in this photograph, the front of the book, you can see my brother and
myself in the mirror. And then if you look on the back of the book, you'll
see the rest of the crew kind of going about their tasks, getting ready for
the shot. And it's kind of a good example of the format of the camera allows
you to really look around in the frame and see all the individual worlds. You
know, we all sort of live in our own world, in a way, and this camera really
brings that out.

GROSS: Jeff Bridges, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. BRIDGES: Great talking with you, Terry.

DAVIES: Actor Jeff Bridges, talking with Terry Gross last fall, after the
publication of his book of photographs taken on his movie sets. He's
currently starring in the new film "The Door in the Floor." I'm Dave Davies,
and this is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

DAVIES: Coming up, we'll listen to a vintage interview with science-fiction
writer Isaac Asimov. The new movie "I, Robot" is loosely based on his work.
And some of the earliest Ray Charles recordings; also, the psychodrama of a
heavy-metal band. David Edelstein reviews the new documentary "Metallica:
Some Kind of Monster."

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

DAVE DAVIES, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, sitting in for Terry Gross.

When Ray Charles died last month, Ed Ward realized he had a copy of a famous
tape of him rehearsing with just a piano, his producer and an engineer back in
1953. It's a beautifully captured memory of a great talent discovering what he
can do, and today, we get a guided tour.

(Soundbite of piano)

ED WARD:

My best guess is that it's the spring of 1953. Ray Charles has been with
Atlantic Records for around six months, and he's gathered with his producer,
Ahmet Ertegun, and engineer Tom Dowd to get some material together for his
second recording session with them. Now Atlantic is just one of a lot of
struggling young record companies, recording rhythm and blues at this point,
but it's different. Ertegun and his brother Neshui are jazz fans, and it's
from this angle that they're approaching this young talent they've just
signed. The engineer, too, is way more overqualified than he needs to be by
the standards of the time. This is a record company that would list the
microphones and tape recorders used in their recordings once they started
putting out albums.

Most rhythm-and-blues companies would just hire a pickup band and let the
singer play onto a tape for three hours, but the Atlantic crew is determined
to get the highest quality results out of the least amount of time. That's
why they've sat down with Ray in the studio, which is actually the Atlantic
offices with the desks pushed back against the wall, and had Dowd record the
process of him learning the new material. Only then will they call in the
band, which will include top-flight musicians, like guitarist Mickey Baker and
and Modern Jazz Quartet drummer Connie Kay, and cut a session.

First up is a song called "Heartbreaker."

(Soundbite of recording session)

Mr. AHMET ERTEGUN: Ah.

Mr. RAY CHARLES: Yeah.

Mr. ERTEGUN: "Heartbreaker."

Mr. CHARLES: (Singing) Heartbreaker, girl, you sure is gone. Heartbreaker,
girl, you sure is gone.

Mr. ERTEGUN: How you carry on.

Mr. CHARLES: (Singing) Heartbreaker, how you carry on.

Mr. ERTEGUN: Bobby-soxer.

Mr. CHARLES: (Singing) You bobby-soxer, mean mistreater, too. You
bobby-soxer, mean mistreater, too.

Mr. ERTEGUN: Little schoolgirl.

Mr. CHARLES: (Singing) You a little schoolgirl, but you sure know what to
do.

WARD: "Heartbreaker" is credited to someone named A. Nugetre, a songwriter
so successful that one poor soul at a competing record label once called
Atlantic looking to set up a lunch date so that he could steal him away.
Asked to spell the name backwards, he saw that it was Ertegun, and slunk away.
So that's Ahmet Ertegun's voice you hear on this track, feeding Ray the
lyrics. Apparently the list of songs to be recorded hadn't been settled yet,
and so Ray spent the next few minutes going through some musical ideas that
they might be able to use. Finally, he hits on this one.

(Soundbite of recording session)

Mr. ERTEGUN: Well...

Mr. CHARLES: Now it's a tune I heard a long time ago.

Mr. ERTEGUN: All right. Well...

Mr. CHARLES: I don't--it's just one other one I thought of.

Mr. ERTEGUN: Well, fine. All right, go ahead.

Mr. CHARLES: I shouldn't even play it. Oh.

(Soundbite of piano)

Mr. CHARLES: (Singing) Please don't be angry with me, baby, because I'm
goin' away. Please don't be angry with me, baby, because I'm goin' away. I
tried to love you, baby, but you didn't hear a word I say.

WARD: After this, he begins playing a country tune, which someone in the room
correctly identifies as "Little Rock Getaway." `I used to play in a hillbilly
band,' Ray informs him, and plays some more, but clearly, the previous song is
still with him, because this is what happens next.

(Soundbite of piano)

Mr. CHARLES: (Singing) Your ways keep changin' like the shiftin' desert
sand...

You see what I mean? Now you got that part right. See, you only got six
words there.

Unidentified Man: All right. Do it again. ...(Unintelligible).

Mr. CHARLES: You know what I mean?

Mr. ERTEGUN: Yeah.

Mr. CHARLES: That's what I mean here. And you should have all your verses
like that. See, that way I won't have to get off.

(Singing) I gamble on your love, baby, and all the...

What's this?

Mr. ERTEGUN: ...(Unintelligible).

Mr. CHARLES: OK.

WARD: The earlier tunes become "Losing Hand," one of his first really great
records. They run through it a few more times, with Dowd adding an odd echo
effect electronically, and then it's on to the next song, for which Ray's only
learned the chorus, so Ahmet helps with the verses.

(Soundbite of recording session)

Mr. CHARLES: You know that. I can't sing them.

Unidentified Man: You going to cut in?

Mr. CHARLES: I'm telling...

Mr. ERTEGUN: Right. Right.

Mr. CHARLES: ...(unintelligible) lyrics.

(Soundbite of piano)

Mr. ERTEGUN: As I passed by a real fine hotel, a chick walked out, sure
looked swell. I gave her the eye, started to carry on. A Cadillac cruised up
and, swish! She was gone.

Mr. CHARLES: (Singing) It should have been me. It should have been me. You
know it should have been me ridin' in a Cadillac.

WARD: The mysterious Nugetre, though, has another song, and apparently Ray
hasn't heard it yet. So after a try at a song called "Nobody," and Ray
showing off by blasting through a few bars of be-bop, they get down to it.

(Soundbite of recording session)

Mr. CHARLES: You gotta sing it.

Mr. ERTEGUN: OK.

(Soundbite of piano)

Mr. ERTEGUN: (Singing) Hold your baby as tight as you can. Spread yourself
outside ...(unintelligible) and mess around, mess around. Hold your baby and
do the mess around. Well...

WARD: "Mess Around" would become Ray's first chart hit, reaching number five
on the R&B charts nearly a year later. At this point, they had four of the
five songs he'd record in the session, and so after Ray ran through Lowell
Fulson's "Sinner's Prayer" and everyone liked it, they must have called it a
day. Ray finished out with some nice boogie piano, and whether anyone knew it
or not, his career as a star was about to begin.

DAVIES: Ed Ward lives in Berlin.

(Soundbite of recording session)

Mr. CHARLES: Have you heard this before?

Mr. ERTEGUN: ...(Unintelligible).

(Soundbite of piano)

DAVIES: Coming up, writing science fiction and coining the term `robotics.'
This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Filler: By policy of WHYY, this information is restricted and has
been omitted from this transcript

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Documentary "Metallica: Some Kind of Monster"
DAVE DAVIES, host:

The documentary film "Metallica: Some Kind of Monster" chronicles two years
in the life of the heavy-metal band. Metallica has sold 90 million albums
since 1981, but three years ago the group was torn by personal and creative
differences. The band's solution was to hire a therapist, and they let two
filmmakers listen in. Film critic David Edelstein has a review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN (Film Critic): It might sound like an insult to say the new
documentary "Metallica: Some Kind of Monster" is like a non-fiction remake of
"This is Spinal Tap." But that landmark mockumentary had a real subject. It
was about heavy-metal legends fighting to maintain their status as rock gods
in the face of middle age, petty jealousy, the toll of reckless hedonism and,
of course, idiocy. "Some Kind of Monster" isn't a joke, but it has the same
tension as "Spinal Tap" between the ferocious energy it takes to keep a
monster metal group aloft and the weight of the real world, which finally
drives the members of Metallica into group therapy and beyond.

Now why would the group open itself up to having this documented? It helped
that they had a relationship with the filmmakers, Joe Berlinger and Bruce
Sinofsky. They donated songs to "Paradise Lost," a devastating documentary
about Memphis teen-agers convicted of the murder of three little boys. And
the Metallica documentary was intended as a relatively straightforward look at
the making of an album, the first in years for a group that's sold nearly a
hundred million records. But as the process begins in the movie, that old
black magic isn't there. The longtime bassist is decamped, and there's
something eating at the singer, James Hetfield, who's quarreling with the
drummer and co-founder, Lars Ulrich. The band engages a therapist to help
them talk through their problems, but Hetfield still can't rise to the
occasion, can't manufacture the adrenaline or endorphins or whatever it takes
to make great music.

(Soundbite of "Metallica: Some Kind of Monster")

Mr. JAMES HETFIELD (Singer): I don't know. I guess the playing part, being
in the room and then mainly being in the room with Lars, playing music
together--I guess I had higher expectations. And I don't know; maybe I'm
disappointed in myself, maybe--I don't know.

Mr. PHIL TOWLE (Therapist): You want to talk about that? I mean, what does
that mean?

Mr. HETFIELD: I'm not enjoying being in the room with you playing.

(Soundbite of unidentified song)

METALLICA: Today, seek and destroy. Today, yeah. Today, yeah, seek and
destroy.

Mr. LARS ULRICH (Drummer): If you're not having any fun, let me let it be
known to you that I'm certainly not having any fun, either. But I--well, I am
not interested in playing music with you if you're not happy in it. I just
don't want to become a (censored) parody, OK? So if you're not happy playing
music with me...

(Soundbite of unidentified song)

METALLICA: Ha, ha, ha, ha.

EDELSTEIN: After that, there's a nasty exchange about Hetfield's guitar
playing, which Ulrich calls `stuck.' I'd have played that scene, but every
other word would be bleeped. Hetfield angrily takes off, and the next anyone
hears, he's in rehab for, like, nine months. And so Metallica faces its own
mortality. We see Ulrich twisting in limbo, having just alienated masses of
fans with a lawsuit against Napster, now the face of a greedy rock star and
stewing in his own impotence. A scene with his Danish dad, a former tennis
star and an amazing figure with a white beard out of "Lord of the Rings," is
an eye-opener. The patriarch is a stern judge, with no patience for people
who settle for stock guitar playing or anything status quo. You can see where
Ulrich gets his critical impatience, and maybe why he pushed the boundaries
and commissioned a documentary like this one.

Berlinger and Sinofsky make themselves part of the story when Hetfield comes
back, and that transparency throws the question back at the viewer: Will
Hetfield be strong enough to survive our scrutiny, now that he's so
undefended? It's quite a contrast, this quiet, clean and sober man, his image
intercut with shots of his prime as a Dionysian, long-haired, boozy metal
titan. Suddenly his life is structured, his Metallica participation limited
to four hours a day. And we watch his partner, Ulrich, chafe against these
restraints.

At some point, all successful rock bands confront what Max Weber called `the
bureaucratization of charismatic leadership.' But isn't that bureaucracy what
metal generally rails against? And what to do about that touchy-feely
therapist? Must they shed him to regain their potency and swagger onstage as
metal men? Hetfield raises the ultimate question in a climactic performance
before inmates at San Quentin: Can you have aggression, the kind of
head-banging fury that gave birth to heavy metal, without negative energy?

"Metallica: Some Kind of Monster" is loose and uninsistent, yet the
underpinnings keep it riveting. It's about a youth culture that makes all
aging graceless, a therapeutic culture that makes all aggression suspect, and
a capitalist culture that makes the potential collapse of a zillion-dollar
enterprise like Metallica the stuff of high drama. You might think Metallica
is just chunky, non-melodic noise. I do, although I like a few songs better
now that I know from whence they came. But the band's implosion and
reassembly makes for one of the most marvelous rock documentaries of all time.

DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for the online magazine Slate.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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