You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘The Smart Studios Story’

Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins are among the acts who figure in this tribute to a late, beloved Midwestern recording studio.

Butch Vig, Steve Marker, Dave Grohl, Billy Corgan, Shirley Manson, Donita Sparks, Jimmy Chamberlin, Doug Erikson, Chris Walla, Tom Hazelmyer.

Official Site: http://schedule.sxsw.com/2016/events/event_FS19403

A humble studio in Madison, Wis., that recorded some of the most trailblazing indie rock of the 1980s and ’90s is commemorated in “The Smart Studios Story.” Not so stadium-league-starry as some other recent documentaries about fabled recording venues (“Muscle Shoals,” “Sound City,” etc.), Wendy Schneider’s fond, unpretentious feature will appeal to a more limited audience of audiophiles still or newly smitten with bands that — Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins aside — remain mostly well under the popular radar a quarter-century later.

By the early-to-mid-1980s the Midwest was a petri dish busily growing new mutations of punk/new wave-inspired “college rock,” their idiosyncrasies developing in useful isolation from the publicity glare of coastal media centers. In 1983, U. of Wisconsin students-turned-full-time music fanatics Butch Vig and Steve Marker decided to rent an old warehouse space and turn it into a makeshift recording studio, complete with empty egg cartons lining the walls as “soundproofing.” They charged $25 an hour when they charged at all, and decades later laugh at the very idea that they might have had a “business model.”

Initially focusing largely on local and regional talents, they recorded a lot of short-lived units (and their own one-shot pseudonymous joke bands, such as Rectal Drip) as well as influential if stubbornly low-selling ones such as Die Kreutzen, Vig’s own group Spooner, and Killdozer. The latter Madison-based group is cited here as a sort of quintessential Smart Studios act for its simultaneous resistance to commercial success, small but fervent fanbase, and role in seeding ground for the later grunge epoch. These early days are remembered with great fondness by a variety of musicians and scenesters, with the initial site’s “clubhouse feel” abetted by regular trips to the bar across the street — not just to refuel, but also sometimes to draft any available patrons for backing vocals.

The discs coming out of Smart Studios began attracting loyal patronage from key indie imprints of the era (Touch and Go, SubPop, Frontier), and even a few bands that graduated to major labels began insisting on recording there. When Vig produced Nirvana’s surprise 1991 smash “Nirvana,” the studio entered a period of frenetic activity where it gave birth to major albums by prominent acts like L7, Soul Asylum and Smashing Pumpkins (Vig notes that in Billy Corgan, he “met his match” in driven perfectionism).

As the operation moved, expanded and professionalized, its founders also grew very busy with their own new musical project Garbage, which featured the gutsy Scottish singer Shirley Manson. Eventually their many personal obligations, rising costs and general industry changes spelled the end for Smart Studios, which shuttered in 2010 despite some notable later releases recorded there from the likes of Death Cab for Cutie and Fall Out Boy.

With plenty of archival video and other materials on tap, “The Smart Studios Story” is a whirlwind tour of a busy if largely subterranean epoch whose long, often fleetingly glimpsed talent roster should pique the curiosity (and/or nostalgia) of alt-rock archaeologists. So many snippets of music are heard that a CD release of the full tracks would probably require three or four discs — and there would be precious little dross in the lot.

The Kickstarter-funded documentary sports an aptly DIY feel but is polished where it counts, notably in the sound departments.

Film Review: 'The Smart Studios Story'

Reviewed online, San Francisco, March 9, 2016. (In SXSW Film Festival — 24 Beats Per Second.) Running time: 90 MIN.

Production: (Documentary) A Coney Island Studios production. Produced by Kerry Brown, Wendy Schneider. Executive producers, Butch Vig, Steve Marker, Schneider.

Crew: Directed, edited by Wendy Schneider. Camera (color, HD), Schneider; music supervisor, Dan Wilcox; sound, Kevin Dippold.

With: Butch Vig, Steve Marker, Dave Grohl, Billy Corgan, Shirley Manson, Donita Sparks, Jimmy Chamberlin, Doug Erikson, Chris Walla, Tom Hazelmyer.

More Film

  • Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi displays

    Narendra Modi Wins New Mandate in Indian Election and Divides the Film Industry

    India has returned the Narendra Modi-led National Democratic Alliance coalition to power for a second term, with a huge mandate. In doing so, it polarized the film industry. The NDA won 351 seats out of a total of 542. The biggest democratic exercise in the world, more than 600 million Indians voted across six weeks. [...]

  • Director Dean DeBlois and online game

    'Dragon' Director Dean DeBlois and PUBG's CH Kim to Keynote 2019 VIEW Conference

    Dean DeBlois, director and executive producer of DreamWorks Animation’s “How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World,” and PUBG Corporation CEO CH Kim are the first keynote speakers announced for the 2019 VIEW Conference in Turin, Italy, in October. Since it began 12 years ago, VIEW, which stands for Virtual Interactive Emerging World, has continually [...]

  • 'The Cordillera of Dreams' Review: Poetic

    Cannes Film Review: 'The Cordillera of Dreams'

    Rounding out his sublimely meditative, deeply personal documentary-essay trilogy on time, memory and the relationship of Chile’s breathtaking landscapes to its troubled human history, Patricio Guzmán delivers “The Cordillera of Dreams,” a haunting and allusive exploration of the cultural impact of the country’s most spectacular geological feature: its snowcapped mountain spine. Coming after the exploration [...]

  • Ari Emanuel Endeavor

    Endeavor IPO Filing Offers Details of Company's Financials, Leadership Pay Packages

    Endeavor’s IPO filing Thursday offers a hard look at the company’s financial performance during the past three years during a period of rapid growth for the company that’s home to UFC, WME, Professional Bull Riders and a clutch of other assets. Endeavor is generating solid free cash flow from operations and healthy adjusted earnings for [...]

  • Inside amfAR's Cannes Gala

    Inside amfAR's Cannes Gala: Mariah Carey, Kendall Jenner and Tiffany Trump

    Kendall Jenner caused a commotion when she arrived. Tiffany Trump went unrecognized until a member of the press pointed her out as she made her way down the carpet. And Mariah Carey flew in to perform a couple of songs. Welcome to this year’s AmfAR Gala Cannes, the AIDS organization’s annual — and largest — [...]

  • 'Mektoub, My Love: Intermezzo' Review: Abdellatif

    Cannes Film Review: 'Mektoub, My Love: Intermezzo'

    A simple but somehow atypical shot opens Abdellatif Kechiche’s new film: a serene closeup of a young woman’s face, as seen through the camera lens of Amir, a budding photographer still finding his perspective. Her expression is ambiguously tranquil, her long hair lightly rustled by a humid breeze, all softly lit by a sinking afternoon [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content