Foo Fighters Sonic Highways, Season 1, Episodes 1-8
Written by Mark Monroe
Directed by Dave Grohl
Airs Fridays at 9pm ET on HBO
If Rock and Roll and guitar rock is a dying breed, then the rock-doc is certainly becoming a quaint relic. How many documentaries can you make in which an aging rock star waxes poetic about a type of music from 40 years earlier? How much nostalgia, history and navel gazing can you pack into the genre before even the documentaries move on to being nostalgic about boy bands, Taylor Swift and EDM?
As a fan of true guitar rock, a good rock-doc is a welcome diversion from the 21st Century music industry. And yet, a film like last year’s Muscle Shoals can’t help but feel stale. Complete with endless talking heads and anecdotes about old legends who performed in long gone studios, the film aimed to capture the special ethos to the region of Muscle Shoals, Alabama. But it never got past saying that there must be something in the water, or that Native American spirits have lent a helping hand. Across eight one-hour documentaries and eight cities, Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl has gotten much closer to answering the question Muscle Shoals left hanging; how does a location shape the music that comes from there?
In Sonic Highways, an HBO documentary series that concluded this past Friday, Grohl and company visited Chicago, Washington D.C., Austin, Nashville, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Seattle, and New York City, recording a song for their eighth studio album in each city. At each location, Grohl stops and speaks with rock stars and record producers about what makes the region special. His simple, conversational style never once hides just how big a music nerd he is. As producers rummage through old logs and photos, Grohl is constantly star struck, asking follow-up questions and partaking in giddy, record collection swapping about hometown bands that inspired them as kids when they were growing up and getting into music.
Perhaps the most innovative thing about Sonic Highways is that Grohl successfully makes a history of American rock music without devoting significant time to Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, R.E.M., Pearl Jam, Green Day, or many more influential artists who have been documented to death. Grohl’s journey through America is seen through his own lens of musical taste and influences, and it leads audiences to the fringes of a scene that truly defines its sound. This is a music documentary series that devotes as much time to bands like Naked Raygun, Kyuss, and other relatively unknown bands as it does to Woody Guthrie, Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton.
This is also a series in which Grohl can do a miniature history of a studio in the Los Angeles desert, or another in the depths of Soho, and convincingly place it next to a chronicling of Austin City Limits or the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. This is a show where Grohl can get deep and emotional on Hurricane Katrina, 9/11, or the death of his Nirvana band mate Kurt Cobain, while also goofing off, be it marching down the street with a New Orleans jazz band, singing Foo Fighters classics while only playing cymbals, or Taylor Hawkins doing just about anything on screen.
In just following where his interviews take him, Grohl captures the local flavor of each city beautifully. In New Orleans, the residents speak of the rhythm of giant paddleboat wheels or the marching funeral processions as the town’s secret musical ethos. In Seattle, it becomes abundantly clear that the constant rain and dreary skies is a perfect harbinger for the garage grunge that blossomed there. And in Nashville, Grohl traces a line from the celebratory Gospel music of the South to the joyous sounds of contemporary country, and acts surprised when he says, “I’m amazed to learn there’s a type of music that doesn’t stem entirely from misery.”
Grohl and his team of documentarians have even developed a perceptive eye. Each episode has a sharply edited montage of all the bands that have come through the city, as well as a balanced mix of talking heads, archival material, and on-the-street footage. And in places like Los Angeles or New Orleans, the series is vivid and colorful, staging beautiful shots of the band and their studio space, with light seeping everywhere into the frame.
Sonic Highways is at times very inspirational and self-important, most of which has to do with Grohl and the Foo Fighters inserting themselves intrinsically into the fabric of the show. Each episode partially concerns the recording of the song in studio before concluding with a full performance of the completed song. As per his writing process, Grohl utilized the transcripts of each interview in order to build his lyrics. For instance, on album opener “Something From Nothing”, Grohl sings the line “A button on a string/and I heard everything”, a lyric that doesn’t make sense unless you hear Buddy Guy talk about how he first experimented with music.
During the performance, the animated lyrics flash in Grohl’s handwriting on the screen, and it’s made to be oh so clever and profound, as though it’s more than just Grohl winking back at you. Whether all this gimmickry and studio hopping makes for a good Foo Fighters record is debatable, but it’s a sincere finale to each episode that otherwise would have to strain for a different ending.
In fact, Grohl’s ego-stroking is a big part of why Sonic Highways works in the first place. Like his directorial debut, the feature documentary Sound City, the guys place themselves into the film because they want to show just how humbled and in awe they are of the work they’re doing and the people they’re interviewing. It would be easy to say that Grohl would be better suited to keep mention of Nirvana out of the series altogether, but the show hits an emotional high note in one of the better and more complete chronicles of Kurt Cobain’s death and the band’s reaction. Sonic Highways even finds charm and catharsis every time a photo of 12-year-old Dave Grohl finds its way into the montage. These guys are giant, larger than life rock stars, and they know it, but they’re also music nerds, as impressed now as they were when they were teenagers.
“At no time did we ever think that anything we ever made would be heard by anyone, ever,” Rick Rubin says to Grohl in the New York season finale. This is a recurring theme throughout Sonic Highways. It revels in the spirit, camaraderie and community of making music about as much as the actual music. The interview subjects opine that the regional scene is disappearing today because everyone is so interconnected, and the ability for people to be encouraged to play music for a small group of friends, without any ambitions of going viral or making it out of that club, is changing. That’s a message contained within a lot of rock-docs today, but Sonic Highways has today’s biggest rock band in the world to back it up.
Jon Stewart asked Grohl on The Daily Show whether there would be a Season 2, to which Grohl hinted there could be. But aside from exploring the many cities around the world that house great music, Grohl has created a series that could have no end. Without a rigid subject, and with no limit to the amount of music that could be chronicled, Grohl really has built something from nothing.