Early on in “Foo Fighters: Sonic Highways,” an eight-episode road trip/rockumentary series that premiers Friday on HBO, frontman Dave Grohl warmly and earnestly describes his desire to simply stop for a moment and absorb the characteristics and nuances of the local music scenes in some of the American cities he’s blown through on relentless tours with different bands since the late 1980s, including his years as the drummer in Nirvana.
The romance of the road — all those white dividing stripes blurring past between gigs — leads to a sort of heartbreak about knowing a town only through a few people and venues. Grohl has picked up on a different vibe in each place: Music made in Chicago simply feels different from an album cut in Los Angeles. Austin feels different from New York. Seattle lends a certain delicious dankness to the sound, while New Orleans finds beauty in humid despair.
Or something like that. The problem with “Sonic Highways” is the same as it is in any documentary or series where there’s a lot more talking than doing. Music documentaries are often dealing with ineffable qualities that similarly tranquilize documentaries about the inner workings of comedy. The interviewer and the interviewee are having a great time getting down to the nitty-gritty of the art form, while the viewer may or may not feel a sense of inclusion or shared fascination for the subject.
The good news about “Sonic Highways” is that it doesn’t have enough time to bore us to tears. All that lingering and hanging out that it promises at the outset gives way to the more urgent fact that Grohl and his Foo Fighters (Taylor Hawkins, Pat Smear, Nate Mendel and Chris Shiflett) have an album to record. And they’re doing it on the go.
Joined by their producer, Butch Vig, and a whole lot of gear, they travel to eight cities to rub shoulders with local legends, shoot the breeze and, eventually, write and record a song in a sacred studio space that reflects the mood and history of the scene. Then it’s on to the next town. (All of the songs recorded for the documentary will be on the Foo Fighters’ eighth album, which will be released next month.)
In Chicago, a viewer instantly gets a feel for the broad magnanimity that endears Grohl to nearly everyone he meets. Producer Steve Albini’s revered studio, Electrical Audio, is a good place to start this journey, linking Grohl back to the days of making Nirvana’s highly anticipated third album, “In Utero,” which Albini produced and for which, per his unique custom, he accepted only a fee for services rendered. (Most producers earn a percentage on record sales in perpetuity; such a deal would have earned Albini a lot more money.)
Grohl also sets about sketching a rough outline of Chicago’s blues and rock history. It’s a stylishly edited and well-meaning collage of interviews and archival footage that rather nicely weaves together the sounds of Buddy Guy, Cheap Trick, Etta James, Big Black, Naked Raygun and Wilco. It’s certainly more fun than reading Wikipedia entries or spending an afternoon in Cleveland’s shabby Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, though the central problem with the tedium of rock scholarship remains. (How fun is rock music, after all, once it’s under glass?)
Time spent with Buddy Guy is all well and good, but Grohl’s best and most tender conversation in the Chicago episode is with a cousin, Tracey Bradford. The two recall a family trip when the Grohls of Virginia visited the Bradfords of Chicago during a summer in the early 1980s and young Dave discovered cousin Tracey had shaved her head and, at age 14, was fronting her own punk rock band. She took him to see Naked Raygun at a bar called the Cubby Bear, and his only thought amid the tangle of bodies and pounding rhythm (besides the elation of discovery) was, “Is this happening where I live? Why can’t I do this?”
Watching Bradford and Grohl reminisce and rummage through her well-kept vinyl record collection is a more intimate and revealing experience than another genuflection before Cheap Trick. For Grohl, it all exists on a wonderful continuum of people sharing and learning from one another, where no one ever resents the success of others. By the episode’s end, he is scribbling lyrics that he’s cobbled together from the interviews and conversations into a new Foo Fighters song called “Something From Nothing.” The band records it and makes an accompanying video. While it technically rocks, there’s something sort of gimmicky and even syrupy about it.
With that in mind, it’s off to Washington for the next episode (which airs Oct. 24), where Grohl’s process somewhat unwittingly reveals a fatal flaw, as the “D.C. scene” more stubbornly resists a united through-line. How, exactly, can one create a coherent story out of Duke Ellington, the Starland Vocal Band, Marvin Gaye, Chuck Brown and Fugazi?
Here, Grohl checks in with some of his oldest and perhaps dearest colleagues, the musicians who knew and played with him before he was famous, when he was a teenager growing up in Northern Virginia.
The Foo Fighters unload their stuff at Arlington’s Inner Ear Studio, a place “that produced the entire soundtrack of my youth,” says Grohl, who interviews Ian MacKaye, a musician whose success with his own record label became a template for the DIY ethic of punk and indie rock. We’re served some of the history of the District’s punk rock bands from the late 1970s up into the early 1990s, all of which will likely hold more meaning and coherence to those who lived it or witnessed it in local clubs. Looking back, the real revelation in Washington appears to be the brief sensation of Bad Brains, a jazz fusion band that changed its sound to hardcore punk and defied both classification and, as it happened, the rhetoric of race.
Obligated by good intentions, “Sonic Highways” wants very much for the story of Washington’s punk scene and the story of its go-go scene to exist as part of the same epic tale of the city’s musicians just doin’ their thing. Both forms elude the bottling process, however, even if Grohl and company are attempting to do nothing more than listen and learn. The song that the Foo Fighters winds up recording at Inner Ear is called “The Feast and the Famine,” with frequent nods to the class divide and other demographic rifts that define the capital.
“Sonic Highways” makes a passionate case that the roots of American music result in the same large tree. Grohl is intent to get his arms all the way around that trunk and give it a hug (and squeeze out some new tunes), when, it seems, he’s standing in a forest. What comes through loud and clear (and loud) is how happy the music — any music, all music — makes him feel.
(one hour) premieres Friday at 11 p.m. on HBO.