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.