Most musicians take themselves very seriously. This is both because creative types tend to obsess over their own work and because the ideal of the struggling artist who lives, breathes, cries, fucks and emotes every lyric is alive within the music industry much more so than any other genre, post painters, sculptors and writers of the early twentieth century. For whatever reason, audiences are much more weary of so-called fakes once the lights go down in dingy four hundred seat dives across the musical landscape. Perhaps that’s why suicide and early death are glamorized. It’s certainly why most hardcore music fans prefer Lennon’s wailings about his mother to McCartney’s silly little love songs. Pain is currency more honest than contentment, at least to those drowning in the former.
When Kurt Cobain killed himself in April of 1994, he cemented his own and by proxy, Nirvana’s ultimate legacy of unrepentant anguish and honesty. They never survived long enough to sell out, get worse or fade into irrelevancy. Nirvana was and forever will be a symbol of antiestablishment brilliance, three talented troubadours who converged at the right time to make their mark and then implode in a hale of artistic freedom. Or at least that’s how many ardent fans expected it to go down, but unlike bassist Krist Novoselic, Dave Grohl didn’t disappear gently into the goodnight. Just months after Cobain’s suicide, his drummer sat at home mulling the biggest decision of his life. He could join Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers or he could roll the dice on a demo tape he’d recorded almost entirely by himself. In the end, he chose to bet on himself, but as he humorously recollects on the choice in the new Foo Fighters documentary Back And Forth, you can tell he still wonders what if.
That a musician, so brilliant and with so much to say, would ponder playing second, or likely third, fiddle when he had a chance to run the show is very counterintuitive to the entire struggling artist mentality, but Dave Grohl isn’t your typical musician. He takes frequent recording breaks to swim with his daughter. He randomly appears in Saturday Night Live sketches and rambles about his love for Top Chef on stage. There’s a likeable, engaging personality behind the Foo Fighters’ frontman. Unfortunately, it’s that same affable demeanor that has led so many critics to write his band off as merely above average. Foo Fighters: Back And Forth plays like a savage indictment of those unfair accusations. True, Grohl appears throughout as his exuberant, optimistic and joyous self, but that easy to digest nature is beset by a sometimes vicious taskmaster whose determination once drove his own drummer out of the band and a strict perfectionist who chose to play every single instrument on the Foo Fighters’ first self-titled release save one guitar solo. It’s that seeming contradiction that makes Grohl both a reliable family man and a musician endlessly struggling. In the end, he may not be Kurt Cobain, but Back And Forth makes it clear he’d rather be Dave Grohl. I would too.
There are few frills or camera tricks to James Moll’s documentary on one of the more successful rock bands of the last two decades, but with the entire group of both current and former members willing to open up, the excess glitz and glamour isn’t needed. There’s enough drama, intrigue, redemption and sorrow afloat that any manufactured excess or post-production sheen would have gilded the lily. To paraphrase Grohl, nearly every famous band goes through a period of awful and embarrassing growing pains, the only difference is the Foo Fighters’ missteps occurred almost entirely in the public eye.
The first of those missteps happened almost immediately after the band’s formation, and it works as a wonderful window both into the personalities of the individual Foos and into why Back And Forth is such a riveting documentary. Enlisting former Nirvana second guitarist and Germs founder Pat Smear as well as the entire rhythm section from Seattle based Sunny Day Real Estate, Grohl never felt entirely comfortable with his new drummer William Goldsmith. How could he? Grohl was/ is one of the greatest rock drummers of all-time. It only seemed natural for him to look over Goldsmith’s shoulders, but after it became apparent Grohl was secretly re-recording the drum tracks on the band’s second album The Colour And The Shape, Pat Smear confronted his buddy and bassist Nate Mendel phoned Goldsmith. Looking back, Grohl is clearly shaken by the whole thing. He calls his own actions “fucked up”. It’s a catch-22. He knows he did the right thing for the band. Kurt Cobain himself jettisoned five drummers from Nirvana before the recording of Nevermind, but Grohl never wanted to be that guy. As he recollects and almost resorts to tears, he proves in many ways he’s not fit to be that guy even if sometimes, for the Foo Fighters he begrudgingly has to be.
Foo Fighters: Back And Forth has no hypothesis or thoughts on legacy. It has no stance on whether Goldsmith should have been kicked out of the band or whether any of the several line-up changes were handled correctly. It just listens to seven current and former members spill their hopes and inadequacies. All have a story to tell. In the words of Grohl, sometimes it is “fucked up”, but in the grand scheme of things, as the Foos laugh and throw each other’s kids into the pool, there are few band I’d rather be a part of. They’re not Nirvana, but that was never the goal.