If we were to look at Dave Grohl’s directorial efforts as an unofficial trilogy on the humane qualities of music, then it seems fitting that What Drives Us feels like the culmination of his previous observations. From tracking what keeps the recording process full of tangible human qualities in Sound City and how our surroundings influence our musical chemistry in Sonic Highways, Grohl’s latest project uses the vignettes of young and seasoned musicians to link the idea that every band grows as a unit through travel and adventure. For almost every band, it all starts with that first trip in their beat up tour van.
Whereas Sound City and Sonic Highways catered towards a more niche audience of musical fiends and Foo Fighters fans respectively, the loose and wholesome nature of What Drives Us feels like an open invitation for anyone to feel that spark of music’s power to shape awe, wonder and joy. Known by all in the music industry to be “the nicest man in rock” (a moniker Grohl is too modest to acknowledge), it is no surprise that every interaction presented feels like a living room hangout… that just happens to feature some of the world’s most celebrated musical entities.
As someone that has experienced Grohl’s ability to make a gigantic audience feel connected in a live setting, this is where What Drives Us shines bright as each interaction organically offers wonderful tidbits about the rich heritage of these creative minds. At a lean 88 minutes the narrative of cultivating relationships and growing not just as musicians, but for many into an adult, never feels rushed despite the growing amount of vignettes to dive into. Each story ebbs and flows like with ease, which speaks to Grohl’s naturalistic sensibility to allow voices to be heard.
From odd tales of Steven Tyler encountering a girl taking off her prosthetic leg to put a rose inside it or Brian Johnson’s bewilderment of seeing Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti” on TV for the first time, there is no one more perfect to be a conduit for these moments than Grohl as he understands these journeys from his first days with Scream and Foo Fighters. In the hands of anyone else, What Drives Us could just play out as a streamlined, formal recollection of shared perspectives. These informalities, diversions and relaxed traits never fail to induce a smile of glee.
One of the most poignant highlights comes in the form of up and comers Radkey. “If you’d told me I’d get to quit my shitty WalMart job…and tour with your favourite band for the rest of your life…it’s just crazy that’s actually happened” their Dad says as they hit the road for another gig. Formed by brothers Dee, Solomon, and Isaiah Radke, their tale of their Dad supporting everything they do to such an intensely inspiring degree sells the premise of van life.
It isn’t just the emotionally grounded aspect here that shines, but also the innovation and virtuosity of musicians. Told through the story of punk band legends DOA and Black Flag, the idea of a “circuit” for bands for tour was unheard of back in the day. “Why would we go to another state! They don’t know us!” Germs and Foo Fighters guitarist Pat Smear posits as they reflect on this huge development for what travelling as a band could be. Through collaboration and the need to connect with audiences, the idea of a tour circuit across the coast became an attractive venture.
These sonic adventures through musical history wouldn’t be complete either without mentioning the powerful impact of women in the 1980s punk scene. X’s Exene Cervenka, L7’s Jennifer Finch and Black Flag’s Kira Roessler all share their own tales of growing, maturing relationships as a support unit that sought out to hit the road as individuals caring for each other, despite their hardened outer shells.
For others, van life and seeing the world beyond our doorstep can lead to personal strife. Former Red Hot Chili Peppers and Dead Kennedy’s member D.H Peligro shares his story of being the victim of racism during the raging punk scene of the 80s, ultimately leading down a path of heroin addiction. Thankfully, Peligro’s story is in the end one of redemption, healing and courage. I appreciate that this rough story of the less well-known and more negative elements of travelling in a band was brought to light. The way in which people see celebrities and especially musicians in this day and age is normally through that of a clean social media lens, so to take time and ensure audiences know that there are humans with deep struggles behind art is a massively appreciated addition.
As this memory highway pulls up to its final moments, this journey of united spirit through togetherness feels just as relevant in today’s climate as it did for these budding musicians seeking to create their own paths. What Drives Us is supremely loving ode to this spark of unity.
What Drives Us is available now on The Coda Collection via Amazon Prime Video