Through his work with everyone from Tom Petty and Kanye West to Slayer and Johnny Cash and Adele, Rick Rubin is one of the very top producers of the past 35 years, spoken of in guru-like terms by virtually everyone who’s worked with him. Since he first burst onto the scene in the mid-1980s as cofounder of Def Jam Records and producer of LL Cool J, Run-DMC and others, Rubin (pictured above with singer Frank Ocean) has cast an almost peerlessly broad creative net and consistently worked with unexpected artists, from Neil Diamond to Slipknot. A work-in-progress cut of “Shangri-La,” a Showtime docuseries dedicated to the producer and his career, aired to a packed house at Austin’s Paramount Theater during SXSW this week, and it provides viewers with a rare peek into Rubin’s storied studio of the same name in Malibu, California.
While the studio, which was originally built for Bob Dylan and The Band in the 1970s, has a fascinating history beyond music, but its rock legacy is certainly the focus of the series, with cameos from names LL Cool J, SZA, the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Flea, David Lynch, The Band’s Robbie Robertson, Tyler, the Creator, Mark Ronson, Chuck D and many, many more musicians, all of whom drop by the studio complex in California to record with Rubin. The four-part series was directed by Morgan Neville, whose 2013 film, “20 Feet From Stardom,” won the Academy Award for Best Documentary, as well as a Grammy Award for Best Music Film. Variety caught up with Neville after the screening to talk more about the project.
How did you first become involved with Rick and Showtime for “Shangri-La”?
Showtime approached me — Rick and a bunch of people on his team were talking to Showtime about doing something and my name came up. I had never met Rick before, so we had a long meeting and it was great. We didn’t talk about music at all that first meeting — we talked about magic and Orson Wells and all kinds of other things. We had a number of other meetings too, but the thing that we were aligned on was that we didn’t just want to do another music documentary. And what I liked about Rick was that he was so different. If Rick Rubin produces you, the amount that has to do with music is about 10%: Most of it is bigger life questions and personal dynamics. I think that’s really interesting, because that’s the thing that supersedes music and even supersedes creativity — it speaks to how can you be a healthy person in this world.
But paradoxically, Rick has also been sort of a savvy, low-key hypeman for himself — he’s a kind of selfless self-promoter.
Absolutely. But Rick really is who you see in our film. He is still somebody who grew up with a very conventional life, but he always had this singular belief that revolved around his own kind of taste and instinct, and never cared one iota about what other people thought. Most people, if they started Def Jam Records, might just do that same kind of thing forever, but then he leaves New York and moves to California and does metal albums and then Johnny Cash. He is truly fearless, and being fearlessly dedicated to your own taste and instinct is something I feel like is the lesson he gives to other artists the most. He tries to talk them off the ledge of giving a sh– about what other people think, what the industry thinks, what their crew thinks, what their management thinks, and what their fans think. That’s really hard, and there are very few people in a music star’s life who is willing to tell them that kind of stuff.
In episode one, viewers see Shangri-La at its best, but in later episodes you deal with some darker themes. Can you elaborate a bit on what viewers might see later on?
As we were filming, the Malibu fires burned down Rick’s two homes. Rick doesn’t live at Shangri-La, but it was right at the frontline of the fires and nobody knew what was going to happen. The Malibu fires plays a big role in later episodes. A lot of what we witnessed with Rick is him being a therapist, essentially.
You filmed Mac Miller with Rick at Shangri-La not long before he passed, right?
We spent a fair amount of time with him filming at Shangri-La about a month before he died. And he was great. His relationship with Rick goes back, and Rick has been trying to help him for a long time. And in a way, it was the saddest thing about the whole project. It’s the ultimate cautionary tale like, no matter how much you put into something, you can’t necessarily solve everything.
Judging by the film, Rick certainly is a good listener.
That listening is so important and he’s such an active and present listener. There are so few people who do that, and oftentimes you’ll say something and there will be a very long pause before he answers. He’s very present and in the moment, whatever you’re talking about.
Did Rick have any idiosyncrasies that you thought were interesting or surprising?
Oh yes, for sure. He is profoundly interested in professional wrestling — he says he spends up to 10 hours a week watching wrestling. But he’s also a big meditator, he has elaborate health regimens.
How is this documentary different for you than your past work?
It’s not a [typical] bio doc, and it’s not a documentary about Rick Rubin — but it’s not not a documentary about Rick Rubin! It’s the complexity of all these things. Rick is there to reflect artists and we’re making a reflection of a reflection. And that is the challenge of it.