TV Review: ‘Foo Fighters: Sonic Highways’

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HBO

For his eight-episode HBO docuseries “Sonic Highways,” creator, director, executive producer, Foo Fighter and professional cool-older-brother Dave Grohl has hatched a novel premise: With his band and producer Butch Vig in tow, he travels to eight different cities, explores their particular musical histories, and records a newly written song in each. In practice, the series is less a voyage of discovery than a guided tour through Grohl’s personal musical obsessions and Rolodex — the trip is always pleasant and sometimes even thrilling, but one can’t help but hope this “Highway” will take a few more left turns down the road.

As he demonstrated in his directorial debut, “Sound City,” Grohl retains a relentless, almost childlike enthusiasm for the key records, musicians and producers in his life, and that enthusiasm goes a long way toward compensating for some of his more didactic impulses. For Grohl and like-minded Generation Xers, punk rock will always be what Woodstock was to the generation previous – the philosophical and aesthetic high-water mark by which every other musical movement, no matter how unrelated, must ultimately be judged. Whether that’s an asset or a shortcoming here largely depends on the destination.

The series’ opening episode, set in Chicago, sees scant mention of the Windy City’s seminal house music, soul music, jazz, gospel and modern indie rock scenes, while allotting plenty of time to cult ’80s punkers Naked Raygun and nigh-unknown kiddie-group Verboten (in which Grohl’s teenage cousin played drums). Grohl does acknowledge the 90-year-old elephant in the room by interviewing Buddy Guy and Bonnie Raitt about Chicago blues, but he’s clearly more comfortable dwelling on topics with which he has personal involvement.

Appropriately, the most rewarding segment concerns Steve Albini, the legendarily intransigent musician and engineer who would surely be a very rich man if not for his refusal to accept royalties on the albums he’s produced, which includes Nirvana’s “In Utero.” Albini talks openly about his resultant financial struggles, and in the episode’s most pointed exchange, Naked Raygun singer Jeff Pezzati addresses Grohl behind the camera, saying, “You know more than anybody what he’s leaving on the table.”

Grohl’s subjectivity proves more valuable in the series’ far superior second episode, set in his hometown of Washington, D.C. Not only does this hour see some real personal passion from our humble narrator, it also has the advantage of focusing on two roughly contemporaneous, thoroughly local scenes: the go-go music of Chuck Brown and Trouble Funk, and the hardcore punk of the Bad Brains and Minor Threat. Embracing a more limited scope, Grohl dwells on the details and allows the dialogues to dig much deeper. (For this reason, looking at the destinations for remaining episodes, it’s easy to get more excited about Austin and Seattle than New York or Nashville.)

Eminently amiable, Grohl proves a generous interviewer throughout, eliciting easy discourse from such prickly figures as Albini and Ian MacKaye. (Considering MacKaye’s decades of uncompromising leftism, hearing the Fugazi frontman wax poetic about Ted Nugent is a delicious shock to the system.) Attempts to spread narration duties to his bandmates are well-intentioned, even if guitarist Pat Smear registers little beyond casual bemusement, and drummer Taylor Hawkins says very little with very high enthusiasm.

Grohl’s style as a director is much like his style as a conversationalist: highly earnest, highly caffeinated, and sometimes a tad on-the-nose. However, it’s his interest in the practical details of recording – from consoles and instruments to the masonry work in the studio walls – that most distinguishes him from his less technical fellow rockists. Up-close glimpses of Electrical Audio and Inner Ear studios will prove particularly valuable to anyone who immediately recognizes those names.

TV Review: 'Foo Fighters: Sonic Highways'

(Series; HBO; Fri. Oct. 17, 11 p.m.)

Production

Roswell Films presents a Therapy Content production in association with Diamond Docs and Worldwide Pants.

Crew

Executive producers, James A. Rota, John Ramsay, Dave Grohl; producers, John Silva, Gaby Skolnek, John Cutcliffe, Kristen Welsh; director, Dave Grohl; writer, Mark Monroe; camera, Kenny Stoff, Jessica Young; editor, Meg Ramsay; additional music, Bryan Lee Brown; art director, Josh Childers; sound, Jeff Fuller; supervising sound editor/re-recording mixer, Eddie Kim. 60 MIN.

Cast

Featuring: Dave Grohl, Butch Vig, Buddy Guy, Steve Albini, Ian MacKaye, Pharrell Williams, Rick Rubin, Dr. Know, Darryl Jennifer, Rick Neilsen, Bonnie Raitt, Big Tony Fisher, Don Zientara, Mike D, Mark Anderson, Taylor Hawkins, Pat Smear, Marshall Chess, James Murphy, Jeff Pezzati, Peter Stahl, Amy Pickering.

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  1. SterlingArcher says:

    I don’t care what anybody says about this band, because Sonic Highways alone tell everything you need to know about Foo Fighters and Dave Grohl. I can’t wait for the tour to reach me already.

  2. Cbaby11710 says:

    This show is amazing on so many levels not only is it a history lesson in music but it’s imaginative and U get to see them put a song together it’s like ur sitting w them in the studio and btw I got to hang w the band last summer and they are all super friendly and “real” ppl and that’s something you can’t fake!! Dave really loves what he does and is super humble and makes sure u know how blessed he really feels. I freaking Luv that about him <3

  3. I love the series. I can’t wait to see the Austin episodes an what surprises are in store. It’s fantastic to see the whole process http://smarturl.it/HighwaysAustin

  4. Stephen says:

    No disrespect to anyone I love this program and how Grohl blends what everyone says as selling out by making a documentry with cable TV and saying “fuck you I am going to teach The Foo Fighters they where my first opening to modern Rock when I was 13 Colour and the Shape saved my fucking life as the angry teen.
    I cant help but ask while giving DC their due and how they grasped at places for an outlet to all the political racisit undetones of that day. I grew up middle class white I can and will never be able to understand beyond what I read what it was like.
    With that being is it not fair to say that this movement was new and just ignoring itsan outgrowing of the movement first defined in San Fransisco and west cost by Carlos Santana in the 60s? I am a product of generation Y all I know is the records I listen to but I cant ignore the recordings from the legendary performance of Santana from Woodstock. The drummer sticks out most being 16 or 19 at the oldest.
    I understand music as it is today is a concoction of the past. Like your mothers best recepe for Pasta each artist adds its own version of spice.
    I love the evolution of Punk and how it grew out of this movement even if it had nothing to do with race because it was all a bunch of white kids.
    I cant watch this and think shit Carlos Santana and his breakthrough 1969 album with the lion and think this might be new to the east cost but its been done.
    what do you think am I wrong? tell me put me in my place

  5. Daryl says:

    Just wow! No mention of Detroit? What a joke is right!

  6. I thought that The Smashing Pumpkins were from Chicago. No mention of them in the first episode.

  7. john says:

    I thought the Chicago episode was great. I don’t see this as a vanity project, it’s somewhat of a musical biography that can be seen as vain, if you choose to see it that way. I seen it as a nod to the cities that have been influential to him as an artist and a tribute to the artists that have inspired him. If an important musical city is left out of the filming I’m guessing it is because those cities did not have an impact on Grohl directly. Being from Chicago and having my own punk rock experience it brought feelings of nostalgia and familiarity. I’m looking forward to watching the other episodes.

  8. Dudley Winchester says:

    Yay, another Grohl vanity project. He travels the country flaunting his celebrity prestige while he records another sapless Foo Fighter’s album. This dude is so obviously disconnected from what’s really going on in music, it’s a joke. There are so many undiscovered rock bands with more fervor and ingenuity than the Foo’s ever had, and instead of busting his ass trying to promote these kids, he’s dwelling in the past, feverishly trying to cement himself as an icon in the music world. Sorry Dave, it’s better to burn out than fade away.

  9. David says:

    A musical tour of America without Detroit, aka Motown and the birthplace of techno, is a joke. That he’s from DC explains that particular choice of city, which isn’t really mentioned in the same breath as the others in terms of musical legacy

    • Nicholas says:

      Exactly what i was thinking when i didn’t see Detroit mentioned. It had so many great beginnings musically speaking. From the two you mentioned Motown and Techno. Along with The Stooges and the MC5 and also the band Death which basically created protopunk and helped create the roots of punk rock in general. Also Alice Cooper in taking shock rock to a whole other level. I was defiantly scratching my head wondering why Detroit wasn’t included. It just doesn’t make any sense to me.

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