×
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.

With:
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

  • SAG Awards Placeholder

    How to Watch the SAG Awards Nominations Live

    Awkwafina and Laverne Cox will announce the nominees for the 25th annual Screen Actors Guild Awards on Wednesday at the Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood, Calif. Beginning 10 a.m. ET/PT, the nominations will be carried live on TNT, TBS, and truTV. SAG-AFTRA president Gabrielle Carteris will introduce Awkwafina and Cox. Prior to that announcement, SAG Awards [...]

  • SF Studios Acquires Norwegian Production Company

    SF Studios Acquires Norwegian Production Company Paradox

    SF Studios has acquired Paradox, the well-established Scandinavian company behind Erik Poppe’s “U-July 22,” to launch Norwegian production operations. SF Studios, which will be celebrating its centenary next year, has up until now focused on the production of feature films and drama series in Sweden and Denmark. The company also boasts distribution operations in Norway [...]

  • Osopez Pitches Toon Adult comedy 'Pleasefixers'

    Animation!: Costa Rica's Osopez Pitches 'The Pleasefixers'

    Costa Rican animation studio Osopez is developing 3D CGI black comedy series “The Pleasefixers,” its most ambitious project to date, which has been selected for pitching at Ventana Sur’s 3rd Animation! showcase. Co-created by Osopez’s Ariel Arburola and Carlos Redondo, the 12-episode, 23-minute TV show targets young adults and adults, aged 18-34. More Reviews Film [...]

  • ‘The Goalkeeper’s’ Gory Patiño Teams With

    ‘The Goalkeeper’s’ Gory Patiño Teams with Luis Reneo on ‘Pseudo’

    Bolivia’s Gory Patiño, writer-director for his country’s Academy Award submission “The Goalkeeper” – also the highest grossing Bolivian film in 15 years – and his frequent filmmaking partner, Spain’s Luis Reneo, are participating in this year’s Ventana Sur films in progress section with their socio-political thriller “Pseudo.” The project was also selected as a finalist [...]

  • Roy Ashton

    Ventana Sur: The Gersh Agency’s Roy Ashton Talks Pitching 101

    BUENOS AIRES — Roy Ashton, responsible for packaging and selling projects to markets and operators such as Amazon for Hollywood’s The Gersh Agency, spoke to a standing-room-only crowd about the process of pitching successfully to the U.S. market ahead of a script workshop he attended Tuesday afternoon. Ashton emphasized the draw of storytelling on an international [...]

  • Ainbo

    Ventana Sur: CMG Pre-Sells ‘Ainbo’ to Over Half the World (EXCLUSIVE)

    BUENOS AIRES — Marking what looks very much like a new record for animation in Latin America, Edward Noeltner’s Cinema Management Group, the sales company behind Oscar-nominated “Loving Vincent,” has pre-sold “Ainbo – Spirit of the Amazon” to over half the planet. “Ainbo” was picked up by CMG in January 2017 off the first edition [...]

  • Breaking Glass Picks Up Romantic Drama

    Ventana Sur: Breaking Glass Picks up Threesome Drama ‘We Are Three’ (EXCLUSIVE)

    Breaking Glass Pictures has clinched North American rights to Argentine helmer-scribe Marcelo Briem Stamm’s ménage-a-trois drama “We Are Three,” (“Somos Tr3s”), which it first spotted at the Buenos Aires’ 2017 Ventana Sur. Breaking Glass CEO Rich Wolff and Ida Martins of Media Luna New Films closed the deal at this year’s Ventana Sur. The film’s [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content