It’s a cliché, but it’s true: being in a band is like being married. Egos have to be managed, credit shared, mutual creativity encouraged. This simple fact has driven some of the best and most famous music documentaries: The Beatles‘ frigid making-of Let it Be, Wilco‘s tumultuous I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, and Metallica‘s psychoanalytic Some Kind of Monster derive their narrative force and dramatic tension from bands unable to perform the basic function of being in a band: writing and recording songs together. From this perspective, then, the Foo Fighters‘ 20th-anniversary HBO series Sonic Highways is a small miracle. The series focuses on Dave Grohl and his band traveling to various music-centric cities around the country, writing songs based on them, and recording those songs in legendary local studios. As yet, there’s been about as much drama as their “Big Me” video.
Of course, that’s by Grohl’s design. After producing and directing the 2013 documentary Sound City, about the legendary San Fernando recording studio of the same name, Grohl was taken with the idea of recording studios as documentary subjects. The idea quickly took shape: Travel to eight music-rich cities (along with already-aired episodes in Chicago and Washington, D.C., the show will travel to Austin, Los Angeles, Nashville, New Orleans, New York and Seattle), interview local legends, and use actual quotes from the interviewees as song lyrics. Grohl’s Sonic Highways gimmick provides the perfect outlet to help get his and his band’s creative juices flowing — after 20 years, it’s got to be tough to force it. Grohl admits as much in the first minutes of the first episode: “We wanted to make the creative process new again.” By the end of the first two episodes, it’s clear how that they’ve done so: by merging their creative process with their marketing plan.
Remember back in September when U2 (who were 15 when the Foos debuted) announced a new album that paid homage to the musical heroes of their youth, and doubled down on their devotion by appearing in an ad with images of those heroes quite literally projected onto their bodies? Sonic Highways takes the same approach…but for eight hours…on HBO. It’s a ridiculously savvy PR move: Grohl gets to pay respectful homage to his heroes, while simultaneously writing his own band into their histories. “I think there’s something about a city that influences the way people play music in that city,” Grohl intones at the start of the Chicago episode. As if to both prove and disprove that assertion, the episode then segues into a graphics-heavy montage of Chicago legends that wouldn’t look out of place on a $30 Urban Outfitters T-shirt or a slickly produced Rock and Roll Hall of Fame featurette: Wilco. Gene Krupa. Kanye West. Ministry. Muddy Waters. For the D.C. episode, it’s Marvin Gaye, Duke Ellington, Henry Rollins, Trouble-Funk, Nils Lofgren. How far can you stretch a city’s influence until it wears so thin as to become meaningless? Grohl threatens to explore that question at the start of each episode.
Thankfully the rest of each episode digs down to a passionate level of music nerdery and scene sociology that makes them worthwhile viewing. Each episode has to appeal to both a broad HBO audience and accommodate Grohl’s own DIY punk/hesher history, after all. The Chicago episode suffers a bit for trying to wedge the history of revolutionary blues label Chess Records into Grohl’s youthful affinities for Cheap Trick and local punk band Naked Raygun (Grohl’s first concert), but that doesn’t mean that the interview clips with guitar legend Buddy Guy are any less revelatory or entertaining. In episode two, the connections between D.C.’s native go-go scene and Grohl’s personal love for Dischord Records are a bit more direct: Ian Mackaye loved go-go’s DIY ethos, and he notes that Minor Threat actually opened for Trouble-Funk in the early 1980s.
Yes, Grohl’s idea of writing new songs as anagrams-of-influences is as corny as the title Sonic Highways, and if the first two songs are any indication, the album won’t disabuse anyone of this notion. Also, I counted five women and at least 10 times as many men in the first two episodes, and two of those women are Grohl’s family members. Yet despite its inherent dorkiness and overwhelming bro aura, Grohl’s music geekery comes through clearly. Whether its legendary Chicago producer Steve Albini discussing the DIY masonry and strategic air-flow in Electrical Audio, ’80s D.C. scenesters raving about how Bad Brains‘ HR — the James Brown of hardcore — “conducts” his fellow band members during performances or Buddy Guy saying “motherfucker” a few times, there’s plenty in Sonic Highways to satiate those who don’t need to be reminded who Rick Nielsen is. As it goes for most big-budget rock music in the 2010s it goes here: Tolerate the corny, overblown promotion and seek out the quality stuff.
The 20th band anniversary is rare; even rarer is the group that manages to remain relevant or even interesting in its old age. While U2 temporarily reinvented itself with All That You Can’t Leave Behind for its 20th, rock history is littered with far lesser works: The Rolling Stones’ Undercover, R.E.M.’s Reveal and Metallica preceding their St. Anger release with a feature documentary about how they all hate each other. Grohl’s long taken a unique path with the Foo Fighters, perhaps a wise one in terms of legacy: He’s the 21st-century Alternative Nation diplomat to the Rolling Stone rock canon. Back in 2003, Grohl played in a Grammy ceremony tribute to Joe Strummer, and he helped paid homage to Paul McCartney at the 2010 Kennedy Center Honors. This year, it’s an eight-hour documentary series that links his band to every significant rock ‘n’ roll city in America. Perhaps Sonic Highways will be an unintended first for the Foos: the music entering history behind the marketing plan that birthed it.