For the past few weeks, Dave Grohl has been slowly unveiling an experimental new Foo Fighters album in a unique way. Travelling around the country, Grohl has recorded each song in a different classic studio in a different city, and filmed the process for an HBO show, Sonic Highways. Each session is paired with a travelogue about each city’s music scene, as well as the struggles of the Foo’s in each studio.
It’s an interesting framing device. It is also by far the least effective part of an otherwise remarkable show.
Borrowing all of the right elements from Anthony Bourdain’s immortal travel show No Reservations, the show makes the argument that a city’s musical history and active music scene is as much (if not more) an indicator of the culture, the heart and soul of a city as the culinary aspects that Bourdain explored and lionized.
Additionally, the show presents remarkable portraits of the professional lives of the people who make music. It presents a nuts-and-bolts approach to something that is often viewed as magical: the production of the songs we hear every single day. The best parts of Sonic Highways focus on the studio and spotlight studio producers, the secret wizards that make that magic happen.
But then the show is stuck with its framing device, which is really only of interest if you are a fan of the band. For the rest of us, it seems like too much time spent with the rather anonymous band members and their problematic ringleader, Grohl.
The question “Is Dave Grohl Cool?” may seem a tad juvenile, but for a show focused on music, and particularly the subset of music that Grohl clearly values the most, it is the most important question and one without an easy answer.
For many, Grohl will always and forever be the drummer for Nirvana. It is a badge of honor that he can wave at any but the most jaded of hipsters to say that he was an integral part of a band that changed music. The path of his career post-Nirvana, though, argues that he is a very talented musician who was lucky enough to fall in with a once-in-a-lifetime genius, and the show does little to deter viewers from this idea.
Like many of his peers in the ‘90s alt-rock scene, Kurt Cobain was always horrified by his own ability to write a catchy tune, and would drown his sugariest pop in mountains of feedback squall. He wanted an elite audience, not a mass one, and his unsuccessful efforts to alienate the plebes broke him. Grohl, without even 10 percent of the confectionary talent of his former frontman, seems more than eager to embrace the masses with just a modicum of “grunge” production to maintain his cred.
Despite talk of punk-rock toughness, the image of Grohl that Sonic Highways presents is largely of a happy-go-lucky, genial fellow who is genuinely enthusiastic about music. While it may seem churlish to criticize a host for being peppy, it is certainly not a quality that one could ever accuse Bourdain of possessing (Bourdain could be just as fawning towards his idols as Grohl often seems, but no one would ever call Tony “genial”). And Grohl’s (or HBO’s) need to keep both himself and the band at the forefront of the story often leads to irritation that we are talking to them rather than the more fascinating characters that populate the series.
That is the most frustrating part of the entire affair. When the spotlight leaves Grohl, the show is brilliant. When it’s forced back onto him, the show either grinds to a halt or becomes positively cringe-worthy.
The Chicago episode, for instance, devotes a solid chunk of its running time to cantankerous studio wiz Steve Albini. Albini is certainly a fascinating character. Refusing more than a service fee for producing some of the greatest albums of all time, he often supports his $30,000 a month studio by playing cards on the side. Grohl presents him as almost a Ned Stark figure, stubbornly doing “the right thing,” even when it’s actively stupid and self-destructive.
But then the same episode forces us to sit through an awkward reunion between Grohl and an older cousin who had introduced him to punk rock, her eyes clearly beaming with pride at having been his gateway.
That both of these segments come at the price of a limited segment on Muddy Waters is equally problematic. Steve Albini may have produced amazing records, but Muddy Waters is the reason rock musicians play electric guitar to begin with. Grohl’s devotion to punk is occasionally a blind spot.
The Washington, D.C., episode at least has the advantage of being about a town that is mostly known (musically) for its punk rock scene, and makes good use of the shockingly friendly Ian MacKaye. But again, the episode is weighed down by Grohl’s personal connections to the town and the scene.
The Nashville chapter puts this in most shocking relief. In a town where Grohl has no personal connection to the city or its music, he can focus on the history. And what he paints is a fascinating portrait of a factory town where the product is not cars or widgets but country songs. Country music veterans such as Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris, legendary producer Tony Brown and national treasure Dolly Parton (who once again proves she’s the smartest person in the room) all share captivating stories about the inner workings of city and the industry that lives there.
But then it devotes an uncomfortable amount of its running time to his friendship with Bro-country star Zac Brown, and the scenes of the Foos working out their new song are mostly notable for Grohl chastising his band for allowing the song to become too country, an admonishment that seems in contrast to the stated goal of the project.
There’s an argument to be made that Grohl’s biggest problem is over-exposure. If Krist Noveselic (the other surviving member of Nirvana) had returned from his relative obscurity to produce a music documentary, it almost certainly would have been showered with unequivocal praise, but Grohl has been in the public eye for over 20 years now. He has an image to maintain and an album to promote. If he were willing to step back a bit and spare us the sight of pudgy middle-aged rockers trying to keep their cool, he might have given viewers something great, a la Bourdain: a really high quality travel show for music lovers.
Top Reads From The Fiscal Times: