Entering into an audience-film contract with a film that touts “the story of the last great American rock band” is a tricky one; and it comes with some strings attached. First, what does it mean for Foo Fighters to be “the last great American rock band?” Is that such a thing? Or more to the point, is such a thing possible? I’d been discussing the topic all day with friends and colleagues, trying to determine the answer. After 100 minutes spent with the band courtesy of director James Moll, I still don’t know if I have the answer. Perhaps I’m not qualified to give that answer. What I do know is that with his film, Moll gives us a bird’s eye view of their rise to fame and delivers to us intimate moments and insights. Seen through his lens, it doesn’t matter what you call them, but it’s impossible to deny that the Foo Fighters are an impressive group of men.
Beginning with Dave Grohl’s days with Nirvana, Foo Fighters: Back and Forth is essentially the story of the band’s front man. There are the comings and goings of band members and all of the “what really happened” pieces to the puzzle that may have eluded fans for years, but it’s essentially the portrait of Grohl. In his effort to gain transparency and (seemingly in some cases — as is true with talking about songs on their new record that fit the way he feels about Kurt Cobain) closure, Grohl reveals himself to be the imperfect leader. He’s been controlling and manipulative because he quests for the band to be what he wants the band to be. It’s not an easy thing to reveal on such a large stage as a documentary, so kudos to him for opening up. It’s the kind of thing that documentary filmmakers hope for, but never know that they’re going to get from a major celebrity.
With that little bit of luck and a clean technical presentation, James Moll presents a very straightforward and energetic look at the band’s history. For about 80 of the film’s 100 minutes, the film reads like the almanac version of their road to stardom. This is what happened, this is when it happened, this is their account of why it happened. The final act, which focuses on the recording of the band’s latest album in Dave Grohl’s garage (on tape, no less), is very intimate and charming. We are finally truly given access to the band’s process, where they are now adults working maturely on their next great album. It’s indicative of the entire film’s perspective on the band; the may be one of the most mature bands in history. Even their problems are resolved relatively reasonably, and their movie, while it feels safe, echos that tone. But moments in the home recording studio, including one in which Dave’s young daughter interrupts the recording with an adorable desire to go swimming, feel honest and natural. Even though it paints by numbers at times, Moll’s doc doesn’t feel anything but naturalistic, especially when it gets past the trappings of talking heads. And that is made easily digestible with great energy and an expectedly killer soundtrack.
Experiencing Foo Fighters the documentary isn’t solely about learning the band’s history, it’s about the men behind a band that is, in many respects, a larger-than-life institution of rock. Are they the “last great American rock band?” The movie doesn’t seem to care, and nor will you. Because the journey thus far is interesting enough.
The Upside: An insightful look at the band’s history that captures some intimacy, presents the band with its best and worst qualities hanging out for all to see.
The Downside: Most of the first two thirds of the movie reveals information that won’t be revelatory to the band’s hardest core fans, but it does help keep it accessible to those on the outskirts.
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