'Shangri-La': TV Review

A music lover's must-see.
7/12/2019

Inspiring and oddly riveting, the star-studded Showtime docuseries looks at Rick Rubin's mysterious creative genius.

There is more creativity, weirdness, thoughtfulness and ambition — both achieved and failed — in the new Showtime docuseries Shangri-La than in a good portion of recent TV dramas. It's a fascinating four-part, four-hour documentation of music producer Rick Rubin's genius, his oddness, his ego, his belief systems and, most wonderfully, his effect on musicians who come to him to find inspiration.

Spoiler: They usually find it, to fantastic creative effect.

The great question in Shangri-La, and it's one that Rubin himself wonders at, is what exactly he does to help them. That's part of the pursuit here, but it would be virtually impossible to have four hours lovingly dedicated to you and not have it come off, at least in parts, as an advertisement for your own ego. It's necessary upfront to note — as Showtime and Rubin, to their credit, do — that this isn't really a documentary, even though it's from director Morgan Neville (Won't You Be My Neighbor?, 20 Feet From Stardom), because Rubin is also executive producer. You can't be executive producer and subject without red flags flying, but admitting upfront that this is "a collaboration" takes Shangri-La off that particular hook. And, anyway, the great bulk of it, no matter how it's rendered, is a lovely meditation on artistic creativity, where it comes from, how to see it, harness it, let it awaken and how that process changes everybody who takes part in it.

Unsurprisingly, for a man who has produced acclaimed albums for a ton of varied artists across multiple genres, Rubin is unmistakably at the center of it. Not everyone will think it's important to note the oddity of having a docuseries focus on the genius of the person who executive produced it, but it at least needs to be acknowledged. What's clear pretty quickly, though, is that Rubin, who has attained near-mythical guru status, derives most of his joy from helping others; he seems rapturously happy talking with artists as his words open up discovery in their minds and shows genuine affection for those who come to the Malibu ranch, made famous partly in Martin Scorsese's own music doc, The Last Waltz, to tap into his particular brand of zen, self-help, meditation, bearded-barefoot-guy-in-shorts vibe and, let's not kid ourselves, platinum touch as a producer.

Rubin co-founded Def Jam Records in the '80s while still a student at NYU, helping launch Beastie Boys, Public Enemy and Run-DMC. The multi-Grammy winner has produced artists as diverse as Kanye, Adele, Johnny Cash, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Slayer, Eminem, Jay-Z, Lady Gaga, Black Sabbath, Ed Sheeran, the Avett Brothers and LL Cool J, among many others. He evolved from loud, New York, DIY street hustler to loud, bearded, dark-sunglasses-wearing uber-producer to what he's been for years now — quiet, bearded, barefoot musical yogi. The beard is the constant and there's no escaping its signature. Even Neville, who directed two episodes, and Jeff Malmberg (Marwencol)who directs the other two episodes, tap into the beard heavily when crafting the dramatic retelling of Rubin's life as a kid (played convincingly, in all his balding-pate, white-beard visual weirdness, by young Rowan Smyth); Rubin's college and post-college days (where he's played by David Pluebell); and the silent "wrestler Rick" affectation (Joseph Yokozuna Fatu).

If you're thinking, what the hell, well, yeah — not all of those parts work, and a puppet is even used later, also less than effectively. Rubin is best revealed in his own words, not via actors or props trying to re-enact his life.

Part of the appeal, as viewers will see quickly, is that the Rick Rubin of the present and the recent past has morphed quite convincingly into a thoughtful, helpful, introspective and some might say trippy (though he doesn't drink or use drugs) wisdom-spouting sage, popping into and out of the Shangri-La studios at the ranch house, bobbing his head with his eyes closed and laying on his back (he mostly works laying down), almost always in the same attire — shorts, bare feet, a white T-shirt or something similarly simple. He has turned Shangri-La into this white-walls, white-floor, white-ceiling church — and has turned a barn out back (that used to house Mr. Ed, the horse — there's a lot of interesting history to that Malibu residence) into a recording space that even looks like a church, complete with a cross-shaped window.

There are many levels of successful and riveting storytelling in Shangri-La. Rubin's early career is so drastically different from his present life that the evolution is a can't-miss arc — even if this isn't strictly a documentary, it's pretty obvious that someone needed to tell Rubin's story (and probably obvious that Rubin thought he might be the best producer for that job). His mid-career — where the early bluster lost none of its showmanship but gave way to a producer who was arguably at the top of his game and was uncannily successful across genres — is mostly told in fleeting flashbacks, often by the artists he produced then who have aged and now reflect on whatever magic he had, plus a multitude of younger artists whom he's either also shaped recently or who have appeared at the ranch looking to be blessed by him.

If there is one area where Shangri-La falls flat, it's in not getting a little dirtier and messier in the examination of those middle years. Rubin isn't universally beloved or without controversy and detractors —most of that was earned in the middle years when he was really great and knew it, not afraid to show it or back it up again with another risky, unexpected detour.

(Hell, this is a docuseries that doesn't flinch at referencing The Last Waltz even if the connection is obvious, plus doesn't blink an eye as Rubin willingly helps strip away the Phil Spector touches on The Ramones' End of the Century album, noting how disappointed in it he was — though he's not alone in that assessment, it's one great producer revamping the work of another great producer, so getting a little cocky about the middle years, no matter how dirty, would have been nice to see.)

Instead, Shangri-La (and, arguably, Rubin) is more content to document this present phase. And it's not the wrong decision. As much as the early years of Rubin yelling into cameras and goofing off with Beastie Boys is a funhouse mirror to his current life, what he was then isn't nearly as interesting as what he is now. Think of it this way: Rubin's current life and persona are so intriguing, earnest, mindful and exuberant at the whole creative process floating through the universe that he's convincingly guileless while passionately discussing it, even though he's producing it. Or, put another way: You can be as jaded as you want, but damn if Rubin and Shangri-La don't cleanse it away.

There is a moment in the third episode — a favorite of the four — where after the previous two-plus hours of ceaseless and loving discussion about music and creativity, a weary Rubin says over a scene, "I've spent most of my life in dark rooms with no windows that smelled like cigarettes. It was terrible. But I wanted to make music. And that's where we did it." He details sleeping through the days with blackout windows, then producing all night. In many ways, Shangri-La is a celebration of finding a different way — getting out to Malibu, getting in touch with the land, the air, nature, meditation and away from multiple studios in a big city.

It's also a celebration of what he learned as a producer — that a lot of life was wasted in recording studios when he didn't need to be there. He knows now when to say something and then step out, or sit on the lawn and talk spiritualism, or pass along some real (but not tough) talk at the kitchen table about what exactly is holding an artist back from finishing a song (it's not the song). Rubin has learned that less is more and that getting in touch with himself and helping others connect on a different plane was the key — not working the knobs feverishly into the late night.

Nearly 50 artists are featured in Shangri-La, from Tyler the Creator to Carlos Santana, Chuck D and LL Cool J to SZA, Flea and a particularly touching few scenes with Mac Miller, the talented rapper who died in 2018 while the docuseries was being made. Others are less famous but enormously talented, often playing acoustic guitar or piano and finding inspiration in the art-free walls of Shangri-La. Lots of people who don't otherwise know Rubin know that he produced Johnny Cash's acclaimed "comeback" album, American Recordings (also the name of Rubin's record label). He's been working a lot with newer artists. In one scene, the rapper Makonnen is sitting at the kitchen table at Shangri-La with Rubin and Vampire Weekend frontman Ezra Koenig and they are talking about the pressures of producing hit after hit, of expectations they struggle to meet. Makonnen says he wants no part of that life and has asked his lawyers if it's possible to just back out of his deal and disappear. 

Rubin says giving up lets others win. "You need to decide what the metric of success is. No one else can decide that."

Makonnen, driving and talking to the camera later, has taken in the wisdom. "Rick was like, if I stop they win. I used to think about them a lot, whoever they are exactly. Most of them are just fans. Now that I've done something that impresses you, it's like, 'Oh shit, I'm over here trying to make more shit to impress you, and so I end up not making the thing that you guys want, because the thing that impressed you is me not giving a fuck about impressing you.' And so I personally need to start getting back to that."

All kinds of experts on spiritualism, creativity, modalities, you name it — they appear here, including David Lynch, no slouch on conjuring up the powers of the creative consciousness. It's what Rubin most wants to talk about, to explore. He likes philosophy and inventing brilliance, opening oneself to the audacity of infinite possibility, probably with your shoes off. Shangri-La finds him at the perfect place (literally) and at the perfect time in his life — he has accumulated knowledge, compassion; he wants to share, to tailor it to any artist willing to "start from a place of not knowing" or just be open to sitting around with a big, bearded, semi-balding guy in shorts and a T-shirt talking about it until it comes to you. 

If you look at it sideways you can find whatever flaws Shangri-La has. But this whole effort is about looking at things differently. And that's actually easy to do with the generosity of spirit on Rubin's behalf; this guy who wants to help you get to that magical moment within. As witnessed by glimpses of artists featured in the docuseries, and a proven legacy, he's certainly doing something right, even if neither he nor anybody else knows exactly what that is. 

Created and executive produced by: Morgan Neville and Rick Rubin
Directed by: Morgan Neville and Jeff Malmberg
Premieres: Friday, 9 p.m. ET/PT (Showtime, and all four episodes can be streamed on the Showtime app)