In the time that Metallica recorded and manufactured its self-titled 1991 album, aka “The Black Album,” the Gulf War began and ended, East and West Germany were united for the first time since World War II, and the World Wide Web became publicly available. In the recording-studio lounge in Hollywood where the band was recording, the war’s progress plays out on a television set as the days turn into weeks and then months. World events come and go as the band chips away in isolation at what would become its most commercially consequential album.
If nothing else, Part 1 of “A Year and a Half in the Life of Metallica” reminds us that the recording process can become an end in itself for rock bands populated with robust egos, perfectionist impulses and bottomless budgets. (The final bill for “The Black Album” exceeded $1 million.)
After eight months of staring at studio gear in semi-darkness, the quartet finally surfaced with a finished recording – but just barely. The final mix of one track, “The Struggle Within,” was completed just 15 minutes before a self-imposed deadline, drummer Lars Ulrich told me backstage at the start of Metallica’s U.S. tour in Peoria on Oct. 29, 1991. “We purposely set up a release date (Aug. 12, 1991) because otherwise we’d be doing this interview in a studio and I’d be on mix number 417.”
Anyone who has dropped into a recording session knows the process. There are countless stops and starts. Bickering and long silences toggle for supremacy. Bursts of sophomoric humor puncture the stir-crazy atmosphere from time to time. Sleep-deprived engineers and producers slump over mixing boards. Fidgety musicians fumble for the key that will unlock the sound they’re hearing in their heads. Visitors – such as singer-guitarist James Hetfield’s dad, Virgil – occasionally drop in to offer encouragement to the sagging musicians: “He’s really improved in the guitar playing.”
The film doesn’t delve into some of the turmoil underlying the sessions: Ulrich, bassist Jason Newsted and guitarist Kirk Hammett were going through divorces.
For Metallica, process turns into obsession. It takes Ulrich months to lay down the foundation of the songs before he’s satisfied with his drum parts. On screen, the drummer shrugs. “I’m kind of moody,” he says.
The film doesn’t delve into some of the turmoil underlying the sessions: Ulrich, bassist Jason Newsted and guitarist Kirk Hammett were going through divorces, Hammett said in a 2001 interview with Playboy. “I was an emotional wreck. I was trying to take those feelings of guilt and failure and channel them into the music, to get something positive out of it. Jason and Lars were too, and I think that has a lot to do with why ‘The Black Album’ sounds the way it does.”
But the documentary does address the head-butting between the musicians and producer Bob Rock, who was coming off mainstream successes with Motley Crue and the Cult. Metallica’s previous three albums had been recorded with Danish producer Flemming Rasmussen. Those albums still stand as thrash-metal landmarks of the ‘80s, but after “… And Justice for All” in 1988, the band felt something was amiss. It hired Rock for the follow-up to help tighten its arrangements and add punch to the mix.
Rock recorded the band playing live to bring out the songs’ emotional immediacy, but the approach necessitated seemingly endless takes, some of which can be heard on the 2021 deluxe-edition box set reissue of “Metallica.” Hetfield’s vocals in particular come under intense scrutiny, with Rock pushing him to dig deeper. “More soul, more character, a little more Hetfield in there,” the producer instructs.
Vulnerability and tenderness -- scarce concepts on past Metallica albums -- come to the forefront in “Nothing Else Matters.” The band is skeptical, but Rock “gave me confidence” to go all-in on the ballad, Hetfield says.
The producer similarly critiques Hammett’s guitar playing on “The Unforgiven”: “Build rather than blow your load.” Hammett eventually responds with a career-defining solo, but the moment crystallizes Rock’s increasing impatience with the slow pace of recording. The producer later said he would never work with the band again because of the constant bickering, though he later reconsidered and ended up producing three more Metallica studio albums.
Despite the grind required to make it, “The Black Album” ended up selling more than 25 million copies worldwide. It also transformed Metallica. Once representing the leading edge of the metal underground, the band became a mainstream juggernaut for the next three decades.
Though Part 1 of “A Year and a Half in the Life of Metallica” hardly sugar-coats the struggle to get everything just right in those eight fateful months straddling 1990 and ’91, there are also glimpses of joy, most notably when Hetfield, Ulrich, Hammett and Newsted gleefully throw themselves into covers of Anti-Nowhere League’s “So What?” and the Misfits’ “Last Caress.”
These rough, ragged, blow-down-the-doors moments sound like nothing on “The Black Album.” But they serve as a timely reminder to viewers – and just as likely the band itself – of why Metallica became a band in the first place, and why the band strived so mightily to keep moving ahead no matter how difficult the road became.