AUSTIN, Texas — At the start of its surprise show at last month’s South By Southwest Music + Media Conference, Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl announced to the packed field behind Stubb’s Bar-B-Q restaurant that “We’re f***ing movie stars!”
The next day, however, Grohl and his bandmates aren’t sure how they feel about that distinction.
Foo Fighters’ history and the making of its new album, “Wasting Light,” are the subject of “Back and Forth,” a frank and illuminating documentary directed by James Moll, who’s best-known for historical pieces such as “Inheritance,” “Price For Peace” and the Academy Award-winning “The Last Days.” The film’s premiere at South By Southwest was greeted with as much enthusiasm as the group’s live show, but sitting on the terrace of the bucolic Zilker Club House on Austin’s south side, Grohl and company discourse on how they feel about the experience.
“I think (‘Back and Forth’) is great. But we’ve just sort of agreed we’re not sure we like movies at all,” notes Grohl, 42, who started Foo Fighters shortly after his previous band, Nirvana, broke up in the wake of Kurt Cobain’s 1994 suicide.
“It’s the commitment of actually having to sit there for an hour and 45 minutes and have your emotions manipulated,” adds guitarist Pat Smear, a latter-day Nirvana member who’s in his second tenure as a Foo Fighter. “I don’t like that.”
“Yeah,” Grohl cuts in, “there’s something about going to a movie theater and experiencing some emotion that I didn’t have to experience. Don’t make me go through this! I paid $7 to be bummed out? F*** you!” “Seven dollars?!” chimes in guitarist Chris Shiflett. “That’s, like, 1987 prices.”
“Whatever,” Grohl responds. “It’s still like, yeah, make people cry, ‘cause everybody else likes movies. It’s just not for us.”
Being in the audience and being on the screen are different endeavors, of course. And as “Back and Forth” rolls out to the public at large — via a limited theatrical screening this week and a subsequent airing on VH1, VH1 Classic and Palladia — Grohl is satisfied that the film serves dual purposes of surveying the band’s past and chronicling its present.
“Personally, I thought it would be a good idea to now tell the story of the last 16 years, so it would make more sense to watch us make a record in a garage,” explains Grohl, who recorded “Wasting Light” in the garage of his “mansion” in Encino, Calif., with producer Butch Vig, who also helmed Nirvana’s 1991 breakthrough album “Nevermind.”
“After selling out f***ing stadiums and becoming this big rock band, why would you make a garage record? To me the first hour and 20 minutes of the movie is leading up to that moment, where we go from the stadium to the garage — to me that’s the message of the movie.”
For director Moll, a Foo Fighters fan who had never seen the band play live before he started working on “Back and Forth,” documenting the recording of the new album “was one of the perks of doing this film.” But as a seasoned documentarian, it was the group’s triumphant past — which includes 9.5 million albums sold in the U.S. alone and six Grammy Awards — that lured him to the project.
“We were telling a story that spanned 16 years,” notes Moll, who was talking to Spitfire Pictures’ Nigel Sinclair about doing a scripted feature film when the idea of a Foo Fighters documentary came up. “Frankly, I wouldn’t have made the movie if they had told me anything was off limits. Then it’s not honest.”
“Back and Forth,” in fact, begins with one of the most sensitive subjects — Cobain’s suicide and the end of Nirvana. Grohl and Smear both talk about it in greater depth then they ever have, and Grohl — who invited former Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic to play on “Wasting Light” — acknowledges it’s a subject he would often “gloss over” in interviews.
“It’s not something you want to talk about all day, every day,” he explains. “But in this case, James was there for a reason, and I don’t know how he did it, but he made you feel sort of safe in really confessing things that you may have never even faced or owned up to. You knew you had to give him something.”
Moll says the end of Nirvana “is really where Foo Fighters begin,” noting that Grohl turned down the chance to be the drummer for Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers in order to start his own endeavor. “It was the biggest rock band in the world, he was the drummer, the band meets a tragic end and now he’s at a crossroads, ‘What am I gonna do with my life?’ ” Moll says. “If you were to write this as the screenplay for a scripted movie, if it was fiction, that’s where you’d start.”
Moll adds that in some ways it was Smear who had a more difficult time talking about Nirvana than Grohl. “It was hard for him,” the director recalls. “In fact, when he saw the film later he said to me, ‘I didn’t realize I said that stuff.’ But I’m glad he did. He was a very close witness to the things that happened with Kurt Cobain and Nirvana, and that really adds to the story we’re telling.”
“Back and Forth” — named after one of the 11 tracks on “Wasting Light” — tackles other rough spots in Foo Fighters’ history, too, including a stretch in the early ’00s when the group came dangerously close to breaking up and Grohl recorded and toured with Queens of the Stone Age. Moll also interviewed former Foos members William Goldsmith and Franz Stahl about their acrimonious departures, and he spoke with the individual musicians — Grohl, Smear, Shiflett, bassist Nate Mendel and drummer Taylor Hawkins — separately, so no one knew what the other said until they actually saw the film.
“You know, James doesn’t make rock documentaries, rockumentaries,” Grohl notes. “He makes heavy movies about some real (stuff), and I think in the interview process he wasn’t so concerned with the music. He wanted to know about the heavy (stuff). He wanted to know about not how we did something but why we did something and the relationship between us as people and how that’s managed to survive for 16 years.
“So it was interesting. The interviews he did with us were long and they were really deep, and we said things we wouldn’t necessarily say to each other.”
Drummer Hawkins puts it more succinctly: “It was like ‘Frost Nixon,’ basically. James seems like this nice, little, quiet, shy guy, but he’s actually a pushy little bastard.”
But Moll, who assembled 1,000 hours of new and historical footage during the process, says there was never an attempt to control or manipulate the content of the movie.
“They wanted me to make the film I wanted to make,” Moll says. “Dave even said that to me, ‘Yeah, this may be our story, but this is your film.’ I asked him if he wanted to see a cut at one point in the middle of the process; He said, ‘Nah, I’ll just wait till it’s finished.’ And he did.
“They waited till it was done. I showed it to the whole band; there was a little bit of squirming in their seats, I think, and they said, ‘There are moments that made us uncomfortable, but it’s real. That’s really the way it happened. Don’t change a thing.”
With the Foos preparing for the April 12 release of “Wasting Light” and most likely a couple years of touring to follow, Moll and the band are now waiting to see what the future holds for “Back and Forth.” A DVD release, of course, is inevitable, and Moll anticipates “quite a few” extras when that happens. “There’s so much more footage we could make a whole other movie,” he says.
But Moll also hopes that “Back and Forth” will have a theatrical life beyond this week’s one-night-only screening before it hits the home video market.
“I hope people get a chance to see it in theaters,” he says. “It sounds great on the SurroundSound speakers; it’s like being at a concert and it’s a very intimate setting to see the film. I think any time you make a film that’s where you want to see it shown, ultimately, and I think it’s definitely the best way to see (‘Back and Forth’), so here’s hoping.”
The Foo Fighters documentary “Back and Forth” will be screened at 9 p.m. Tuesday, April 5, at Emagine Entertainment Novi, MJR Sterling Heights Marketplace 20, MJR Brighton Town Square 20 and Southgate 20. A 3-D performance of the band performing its new album, “Wasting Light,” in its entirety will follow. For details and advance ticket purchases, visit www.foofightersfilm.com. “Back and Forth” will also air at 10 p.m. on Friday, April 8, on VH1, VH1 Classic and Palladia.
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