Back in the music industry’s fat years, by-the-numbers band docs like “Foo Fighters: Back and Forth” were relegated to special-edition CD releases. This one is set for an 80-theater rollout, and does little to justify such exposure. Covering all the bases of the affable band’s career, James Moll’s toothless bio has no inclination to follow up on the plentiful intriguing themes that a more accomplished film would highlight, but as a fan-friendly valentine to an enduringly popular group — accompanied theatrically by 3D performance footage, and slated to air on VH1 afterward — it should nonetheless play well to the faithful.
While the band’s individual members have impressive pedigrees, the Foo Fighters were unlikely candidates for superstardom. Starting as a therapeutic solo project for Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl after his bandmate Kurt Cobain’s suicide, the Foo’s first record was a lo-fi bedroom demo featuring Grohl on every instrument. Subsequently fleshed out into a real band with former Germs guitarist Pat Smear and a rhythm section poached from proto-emo outfit Sunny Day Real Estate, the group unexpectedly went on to move millions of albums, win six Grammys and sell out Wembley Stadium while weathering some acrimonious lineup changes, a drug overdose and a wearying series of tours.
Collecting interviews with all band members past and present, Moll doesn’t push for anything beyond the most diplomatic commentary from his subjects: They’re all funny, generally forthright and almost entirely unrevealing. This is not to say that the film would be better if it wallowed in the heartbreaks and excesses of rock ‘n’ roll life, but a little dose of insight could have gone a long way. Surely these men have reflections on building a reliable workhorse of a band from the ashes of three spectacular flameouts, or maintaining the band’s status as one of the very few straightforward rock acts still capable of topping the charts year in and year out.
Grohl in particular cries out for a more thorough portrait. He’s among the best drummers of his generation, yet he’s spent half his career playing rhythm guitar; he’s played the stable straight man to one of modern music’s most erratic figures and he’s also been hospitalized for excessive caffeine consumption; he’s built a reputation as “rock’s most likable frontman,” yet he’s given to authoritarian impulses that have seen him alienate and expel even close personal friends from his band. There’s clearly a fascinating man behind the gum-smacking drinking-buddy persona, but it’s one we learn little about here.
After zipping through the band’s discography with enthusiastic if unexciting precision, the film slows down considerably for an extended coda documenting the genesis of the Foo’s upcoming seventh studio album, “Wasting Light.” The recording process seems a charmingly low-key affair, and we see homevideo-style footage of the band laying down tracks in Grohl’s home studio while band members’ families and famous friends like Husker Du’s Bob Mould and Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic drop by. But the sheer length of this segment only adds to the nagging suspicion that the film’s purpose is far more promotional than advertised. (The album is set to hit stores a few days after this film hits VH1.)
Audiovisual quality is topnotch all around, and the pace rarely lags, despite a somewhat overlong running time.