Dave Grohl packs a lot of story, sentiment, and personality into his HBO music series — and the massive project almost eludes him.
The documentary, timed to coincide with the Foo Fighters’ upcoming album, tells several stories at once: the history of American rock music, the history of some music studios, the memories of some music legends, the history of Grohl’s biggest bands (Nirvana and the Foo Fighters), the story of his life in and around Washington, DC, and the changing nature of the music industry.
However, it’s mostly about “drawing the curtain on the inspiration to write lyrics,” says Grohl, who founded the Foo Fighters and was the drummer for Nirvana.
It’s best when it’s focused, deconstructing a one-song line.
“Everything comes from somewhere,” Grohl says at the start of his ambitious multidimensional rock travelogue. Its goal is to visit key cities where American music has its roots and learn how these places have inspired those who have worked and played there.
“Foo Fighters: Sonic Highways” premieres Oct. 17 at 7 p.m. on HBO.
Sometimes it provides more than enough information about the specific hole-in-the-wall studio and not enough about the legends who played there.
He surveys eight studios in eight cities — Austin, Chicago, Los Angeles, Nashville, New Orleans, New York, Seattle and Washington, DC — places he considers “sacred ground.”
Gorgeous vintage images of early blues clubs and recording equipment are accompanied by an explanatory shot of a sounding button on a string. Everything comes from somewhere, as the man said.
Bonnie Raitt talks about Buddy Guy’s blues, Guy talks about meeting Muddy Waters. “I was looking for a penny and found a quarter,” Guy says. The line resurfaces in a Grohl/Foo Fighters lyric.
And that’s the gimmick. Grohl explained to critics, “The challenge of the whole process is that as you see these people talking about these cities, you see our band in the studio writing and putting together a song. And on the very last day of the session, I take my transcripts with all the interviews, and I get a bottle of wine, and I sit in my hotel room.
“And I read the transcripts and took words and ideas and thoughts, and put them on this side of the page. And on this side of the page, I have the outline of the song. And I’m writing the song for the episode.
“So the finale of each episode is a performance of the song, where you realize all of these lyrical references are from the show you just watched.”
He swears it was so hard he’ll never do it again.
Geeks will love the memorabilia of early punk rockers, the stories of studio engineers, the funky early days of Chess Records in Chicago, and Washington’s 9:30 club.
Speaking to critics this summer, Grohl recalled how, after his first film, “Sound City,” on a single studio, “I began to realize the power of music and documentary together, because often music can seem really one-dimensional.
While still mastering the form, he plays the cultural anthropologist with the same enthusiasm with which he plays the drums.
“There’s a reason jazz came from New Orleans. There’s a reason country went to Nashville and why blues went to Chicago,” he said. “And I can interview all of these people and talk to them about it. And it goes back a hundred years, you know.
The series meanders at times, but only because Grohl’s goals are lofty.
Joanne Ostrow: 303-954-1830, [email protected] or twitter.com/ostrowdp