'Foo Fighters: Sonic Highways': TV Review
Parts of Dave Grohl's new HBO documentary series feel like a trip through the very subconscious of American music
No one can question the level of passion behind Dave Grohl's "love letter to the history of American music," the eight-episode HBO documentary series Foo Fighters: Sonic Highways. Grohl and his Foo Fighters bandmates expand on the idea behind his well-received 2013 documentary, Sound City (which focused on Sound City Studios in Van Nuys, California), by traveling to eight studios across the country, including Chicago, New Orleans, Nashville and New York City. The band also recorded one new song at each destination; those tracks will all add up to their eighth studio album, the release of which will coincide with the airing of the series.
The impetus behind Sonic Highways was a search, as Grohl puts it, to "make the creative process new again" after 20 years together as a band. In the first two episodes — Chicago and Washington, D.C. — Grohl, and to a lesser extent his bandmates Chris Shiflett, Pat Smear, Nate Mendel and Taylor Hawkins return to the roots of their influences. "This is Sound City on steroids," Grohl explains.
Sonic Highways, which Grohl also directed, is a lush production that has a frenetic energy to it. There's no clear sense of storytelling, but rather, a jumble of ideas and sounds. Each location is introduced by a montage of local bands who had unique influences, like the Go Go sound of Chuck Brown in D.C., or Buddy Guy's "aggressive" Chicago-style guitar riffs. The visual assault of strobing archival footage, mixed with the dissonance of various musical styles that are cut together rapidly, makes parts of Sonic Highways feel like a trip through the very subconscious of American music.
As such, each hour of storytelling is extremely dense and insider-y, though in an accessibly educational way. For those looking to understand the indie and underground music scenes in each of these towns, the cavalcade of information will be ravenously soaked up. For casual viewers, on the other hand, it might be hard to find a driving force behind Sonic Highways other than as a fractured historical survey.
It goes without saying, however, that the documentary is essential for Foo Fighters fans, particularly given the amount of time spent on backgrounds and childhood influences, mostly regarding Grohl. (In the first two episodes, none of the other band members make much of an impression besides a humble Hawkins, who admits candidly in Chicago he doesn't care at all about blues, but loved Cheap Trick.) As they talk to — and occasionally work with — artists and influencers like Joe Walsh, Rick Nielsen, Bonnie Raitt, producer Steve Albini, Ian MacKaye and innumerable others, Grohl easily and enthusiastically cites his connections to their sound. And even if his music doesn't necessarily incorporate a certain style being featured, he still approaches each with the unpretentious sincerity and intensity of a true fan.
All of this adds up to a documentary series that has a lot of components. It keeps it moving fast, but it can also make it feel scattered: There's the documentation of the Foo Fighters' current recordings, as well as the history of each city's music told through its cultural icons; Grohl spends time on personal connections to the material, while also tying in an overall look at the music coming out of the youth movements and after the Civil Rights Era. But part of its radical vigor also feels dated, with middle-aged men (and occasionally women) reminiscing about the emotions of finding their first life-changing band experience; a kind of "you had to be there." There's also no sense of how these influences tie in to current local acts, or how the industry of making music in your garage (or on GarageBand) has changed — this is all pure history.
There's a lot to be gained from Sonic Highways, but it probably won't appeal to those outside of hardcore music appreciation circles, or those who are out on Friday nights (when the series airs) being indoctrinated into their own radical band experiences. At the end of each episode, the Foo Fighters perform and record a song Grohl composed that was influenced by city, and in that particular studio. Even for those who will have enjoyed the history and stories from the rest of the hour, there's a sense of relief when Hawkins counts down the beat and the guitars fire up. "Lets f------ play," Grohl says impatiently. "Everyone's just sitting around talking."