What is most interesting about Dave Grohl’s Foo Fighters: Sonic Highways is how it frankly fails at its stated thesis while being a lovely, entertaining piece of television anyway. On some level, this is obvious – Grohl’s idea of visiting a city and capturing its essence as a muse for a Foo Fighters song is both a spectacular overambitious and muddled idea. What does that even mean? Grohl is not a chameleon shape shifting from one genre to another (unlike say, Prince). The songs at the end of each episode sound very much like Foo Fighters songs. (which is not a complain at all, but the “spirit of location” is not exactly present). Obviously, this conceit comes up because the Foo Fighters needed some motivation to write new songs and record a new album, and these days you need something to help the album along. Taylor Swift goes to Target, Dave Grohl goes to David Letterman (whose studio is involved) and HBO.
Grohl himself now occupies an interesting place in popular culture. As he noted in the Seattle episode, he was a late arrival to Nirvana – that Kurt Cobain and Kris Novoselic were the creative engine – and then ended up as drummer in one of … well you don’t need me to tell you. And now, he is fronting a band which has gone on almost 20 years, turned into legit rock fuddy duddies, and still remains one of the better bands out there. Basically, imagine if Ringo Starr fronted Wings and you sort of get the idea. As a result, when you see him on the telly or on the show, you get a guy who is very much a fan and grateful for the career he has had – both being able to drink up the success of two of the most consequential bands of the era without the scarring of Cobain.
It is interesting here, as Grohl firmly places himself and Foo Fighters as a vestige of a rock and roll time past, in a sense auditioning for classic rock radio. (a battle he won’t win because hey, somebody has to play 38 Special records) In the first episode in Chicago, Grohl deals in Buddy Guy and Bonnie Raitt – in Seattle we see Heart, in Nashville Dolly Parton. We are checking off boxes here. In this sense, we are getting fairly standard rock and roll travelogue. It is clearly an attempt to “capture the musical essence” of a city or whatever – but as much as writing the Great American Novel almost always results in failure, Grohl does not really get anywhere here. This is most notable in the Seattle episode where he touches on Seattle hip hop with Macklemore for no apparent reason, aside to show that he did it. The interviews are engaging, but inconsequential.
Of course, writing the Great American Novel will never work. But as writing teachers I’ve had advised – paradoxically the most universal stories are the most personal. And there is a lot personal here blessedly. Grohl is a generous director, leaving his subjects space to talk, and when he is on screen you see genuine excitement. He gets jazzed up by meeting Tony Joe White. And the idea of Zack Brown fighting against the Nashville machine (which seems more or less identical to the process that is used to make Boy Bands, or Skittles) clearly enthuses him too. But where the series really shines is when Grohl gets to talk about his own influences. One of my favorite interviews was with his own cousin in Chicago who took him to his first punk show. He talks about the lack of enthusiasm that he had for going somewhere with his mom, and how blown away he was when his cousin turned out to be a punkhead. It is even more present in the Washington DC episode, where he trods the area he knows best, talking about how much Bad Brains and Dischord Records meant to him. Passionately discussing The Germs in Los Angeles (Pat Smear’s old band) or the sadness when he recalls the end of the Nirvana time and Cobain’s death – you get the heart of the show and the stuff that I knew less about.
Tonight is the season finale, the New York episode. I am not sure where it will lead. The show has been unfocused at times clearly, and has aimed for too much. But it has never been dull, and at times legitimately touching.