If you are any kind of rock music fan, you probably know who Dave Grohl is. Nirvana’s drummer, and front man of the Foo Fighters, he has played a large part directly and otherwise in shaping the modern rock landscape. When grunge began to die and Nirvana ceased to make music, he started the Foo Fighters, first as a cathartic release and then as what became a definitive post-grunge outfit. When that sound began to cloy, he led the band into their current position as pop cultures’s foremost meta-modern powerhouse.
Here’s what you might not know about Dave. In addition to all his musical achievements, he has succeeded where the many of the world’s greatest filmmakers have failed, in directing a picture that received a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
Sound City, released in 2013 told the story of a small studio in California that helped to bring to our ears some of the greatest albums of all time — The likes of Fleetwood Mac and Rage Against the Machine made their debuts there and Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers recorded a large portion of their discography in the studio as well. Grohl does a great job telling about this largeley unsung but extremely vital part of music history using interviews and narrations that flow almost as if the subjects are gathered around a living room reminiscing about the good old days of the studio.
Grohl shows great humor, at one point seemingly citing a studio worker’s propensity for making guacamole as part of the place’s vibe. Most hilariously in his interview with Rupert Neve — creator of the unique recording console that allowed Sound City its success — Grohl cuts to his own face midst a long winded explanation of some complicated recording concept and raises his eyebrows. A subtitle appears at the bottom of the screen; “Wow, he must know I’m a high school drop out.”
As only a musician could, Grohls song cues are consistently on point, though thats’ probably the easiest part of his job considering the fantastic artists that he gets to talk about. In Back and Forth he takes us through some 40 years of music through a smartly timed montage of song clips. Everything is as immersive as possible with dug up footage both as filler and as illustration of major points made. When unable to use video, Grohl uses what he’s got. At one point he shows a picture of a singer belting it out, and when the song hits a piercing high note, the image suddenly shakes back and forth, possibly more visceral than any video could be.
These documentaries prove Grohl’s prowess as a superior oral historian. He draws from all corners of the music world with interviews ranging from Rick Rubin to Buddy Guy. There is no lack of credibility or opinion. These films are not just entertainment, they are authoritative compilations of rock history.
This isn’t to say that these docs are perfect of course. Grohl delves into pretty cringey territory with voiceovers about kids with nothing but their songs and a dream to keep them going, and a lot of the “behind the scenes” footage feels staged or disingenuous. Plus, there’s a super indulgent performance at the end of each piece, so for Sonic Highways that’s eight indulgent performances, with Grohls silly lyrics flashing on the screen in an “edgy” font.
However, one has to admire the way he lays his shortcomings out completely in the open, almost masochistically. In Back and Forth, Grohl dedicates a whole segment to his inability to relinquish total control of the band, even going so far as to completely replace one drummer’s tracks. In another instance, Grohl more or less invited a guitarist to be in the band and then edged him out because of creative differences. These are things that happen in a lot of bands, but they usually get brushed under the rug. The fact that they are borne to the world here suggests serious growth and maturity over time.
Dave Grohl is less of a visionary artist than he is a phenomenal entertainer. He unabashedly retools classic sounds to create nostalgic rock music, and makes music with trailblazers of the past. His methodology in film matches that of his music. His documentaries are celebrations of Rock; where its come from, and where it still may go.