Showtime’s documentary series “Shangri-La” insists it is not a biographical documentary on uber-producer Rick Rubin, and it’s not meant as a four-hour advertisement for Rubin’s legendary Malibu studio, after which the four-part series is named … but it feels like a little bit of both those things. “Shangri-La” is primarily filmed at the studio where the viewer follows the barefooted Rubin around the property, eavesdropping on conversations he has with both likely characters — in the form of musicians such as Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig and LL Cool J — to unlikely characters such as surfer Laird Hamilton, magician David Blaine and entrepreneur Seth Godin. Here are a few unexpected things we learned watching each hour-long episode.
Shangri-La is entirely devoid of any decoration.
The default look for most professional recording studios is walls covered with platinum records and glass cases littered with awards, plus personalized items from all the artists who recorded there, quirky music memorabilia and a variety of screens. Shangri-La, though, is entirely bare. The whitewashed rooms of the multiple buildings of the studio barely house any furniture, let alone knick-knacks. Filmmaker Morgan Neville explains: “The idea is to not have any art on the walls, so your brain is as empty as possible, so you aren’t thinking of a picture — you have to come up with one.”
The complex is home to a treasure trove of music artifacts.
All the doo-dads that are absent from the main space of the studio are housed out of sight behind a number of closed doors and down some stairs. “The Library,” as it is called, is revealed less than halfway through the first episode. A breath-catching and comprehensive music museum, these extensive archives include rare books, historic instruments and old recordings — what the studio manager, Eric Lynn, refers to as “inspiration pieces.” These archives are managed by USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism’s Josh Kun, who speaks knowledgeably about their contents over the course of the four episodes.
The studio gets a facelift after each artist completes their recording.
The team at Shangri-La repaints and refreshes the entire space in between artists. The entirely white and stark space is restarted for each new session. Long-handled rollers dipped in pure white paint go over the already very white rooms, brightening them up even more. The meticulous dusting of the mixing board knobs and vacuuming of the ducts by the studio’s engineers is positively enviable and the stuff of allergen-free dreams.
Television’s Mr. Ed used to live there.
The church-like stand-alone studio on Shangri-La’s property used to be a barn that housed Mr. Ed, the titular horse from the 1960s television show, while he was on hiatus. “Shangri-La” does not delve into the history of this property, as that is not its focus, but there are bits here and there that reveal random moments in its metamorphosis to the present time … and Mr. Ed made that cut.
Shangri-La survived the 2018 Woolsey Fire, but Rubin’s two homes did not.
During the 2018 Woolsey Fire, Rubin lost his two nearby Malibu homes, burnt right down to the ground. Only one of Shangri-La’s staff, the hugely likeable Sean G., stayed on-site at the studio, watering its surroundings and saving the entire property from any damage.
Rubin wears the same uniform every day.
Like Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Albert Einstein and even Elizabeth Holmes, Rubin doesn’t waste valuable creative time picking a wardrobe. Instead, he repeats the same clothes every day. In Rubin’s case, this is a white T-shirt, loose black shorts and no shoes. In a conversation with Tyler the Creator, Rubin says, “The earth actually has an electrical and magnetic energy that goes into our body if we are naked on it, and if we’re covered all the time, we don’t get to feel it. In terms of health and in terms of knowing things, part of the life source is being tapped into the earth.”
Rubin is obsessed with professional wrestling, and with magic.
With all the time he has on his hands, Rubin watches hours of professional wrestling on a weekly basis, purportedly looking for the connection between what is real and unreal. By that same token, he has been an amateur practitioner and admirer of magic, looking for the spark that will make the unbelievable believable. As Blaine explains to Rubin, “Once you know that [the magician is] really doing that, it makes the magic possible. It makes it possible for you to believe that the magic is possible…” “Makes sense,” Rubin says in reply.