Foo Fighters documentary at SXSW captures past, present and future of great rock band
There's a climactic scene in "Foo Fighters: Back and Forth," the new James Moll-directed documentary premiering Tuesday night at the Paramount Theatre, in which band leader Dave Grohl looks out at 85,000 delirious fans at Wembley Stadium in London and exclaims "How the (expletive) did this happen to this band!"
If that scene had come near the beginning of the film, it might have smacked of chest-beating. But it's shown at about the hour and 10-minute mark, after you've gotten to know the band members and their struggles with self-esteem, intraband relationships and the endless road. When the camera shows Grohl and drummer Taylor Hawkins, in the same shot, although they're probably 50 feet apart onstage, staring ahead in joyful, tearful reflection at Wembley, it's hard to not be moved by the solemn faces of triumph. Your heart cheers at a moment earned.
"The thing that James did that hadn't really been done before with us was focus on the people in the group, as well as the music," Grohl said last week from his home in Los Angeles. "I would sometimes tell him 'I'm really kind of uncomfortable about this being in the movie,' but my thinking was that's a good thing."
Especially hard for Grohl to watch were the scenes with original drummer William Goldsmith, telling the camera how emotionally gutted he felt when Grohl, one of the greatest rock drummers ever, went back and redid Goldsmith's drum parts on second album "The Colour and the Shape."
"I didn't want this movie to break up the band or send us into therapy; I've seen that movie," said Grohl, referring to Metallica's "Some Kind of Monster." Not wanting to interfere, Grohl declined director Moll's offer of watching early cuts of the film and saw it for the first time with his bandmates. "I wanted it to be completely honest, and it is," Grohl said.
One way to transcend the corny "Behind the Music" format is to hire an Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker. But Moll, whose Oscar (1998's "The Last Days") and two Emmys came from films about the Holocaust, seemed an unlikely choice. He was suggested to the band by the film's producer Nigel Sinclair, who was so impressed with Moll's 2006 documentary "Inheritance" that he set up a meeting. "I asked him what he wanted to do next and I was surprised when he said a rock documentary," said Sinclair, who is currently producing a documentary about George Harrison by Martin Scorsese.
The Foo Fighters film went from seed to fruit in just over a year.
In January 2010, Grohl had a day off on tour as drummer for Them Crooked Vultures and he started writing a song for the next Foo Fighters record called "Back and Forth," which stirred memories of two decades ago, when Nirvana's "Nevermind" changed everything. "We knew Butch Vig was going to produce," Grohl said of the record "Wasting Light," which comes out April 12. "And we knew it was going to be on analog tape and we were going to record it in my garage."
To explain "Wasting Light's" back to basics recording process, with producer Vig, guest bassist Krist Novocelic and Grohl all being in the same studio together for the first time since "Nevermind," Grohl decided there was "a need to explain how we've spent the last 16 years. I thought there would be two different films — one on the history of the band and one on the making of the record — but then I realized they were connected."
Like "Runnin' Down a Dream," Peter Bogdanovich's terrific documentary about Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, "Back and Forth" is a compelling movie about a great band, told in a straightforward manner that respects the history. There's powerful live music and snippets of the zany videos that have made Foo Fighters the token rock band at televised award shows (they'll play new single "Rope" at the mtvU Woodie Awards Wednesday night at the Austin Music Hall). But one of the film's strengths is Moll's gift as a interviewer. "When I signed on, I had only one condition," said Moll, who was a Foo Fighters fan when he heard about the project. "I asked them to ignore me, ignore the camera and just be themselves,"
An important point made early by the chronological film, which opens with a 10-minute segment of Grohl's time in Nirvana, is that when Foo Fighters formed in 1995, the members were all from bands that ended prematurely — guitarist Pat Smear, also in Nirvana and the Germs before that, bassist Nate Mendel and drummer Goldsmith in Sunny Day Real Estate. "Our first tour was with Mike Watt, who'd just lost D. Boone in a car accident. We were all pretty heartbroken," said Grohl, "but we weren't finished playing music. Foo Fighters have always operated under the idea that the band is totally temporary. I know what it's like to have everything pulled out from under me and having to start over."
But it's not like Grohl didn't have options after the 1994 suicide of Kurt Cobain. Petty asked him to join his Heartbreakers on drums; Grohl even played with Petty on "Saturday Night Live." But rather than take the safe paycheck, Grohl opted for a leadership role in a new band that would play songs he had written. "I'm a high school dropout," said Grohl. "I had always worked for somebody else." Turning down the Petty job was one of the toughest things he'd ever done.
The five members of the Foo Fighters — guitarist Chris Shiflett was hired in 1999 after a cattle call audition — watched the film, which was then called "Times Like These," for the first time a few weeks ago in the editing room at Spitfire Pictures. "The movie kind of freaked me out a little," Grohl recalled. "There are some parts that are hard to watch. But when the lights came up, I realized that I could count all the weddings, all the funerals, all the babies that were born amongst the five of us. It made me realize that your life is bigger than your band."
The documentary peaks with the emotionally charged Wembley concert, then starts over again, with footage of the extended Foo Fighters family at a pool party.
Unless Moll changes the ending, which was still a possibility on Saturday, the last song played in the documentary is "This Is a Call," the first song from the first Foo Fighters album, on which Grohl played every instrument. It's the song that first showed Nirvana fans that the drummer — the drummer, ha — could write and sing great songs on his own.
"Foo Fighters: Back and Forth" will play 80 theaters nationwide April 5, followed by a live concert of the band doing "Wasting Light" in its entirety. If the rock band is dead, Foo Fighters are going kicking. The documentary also will air at 9 p.m. April 8 on VH1.
'Foo Fighters: Back and Forth'