Published Apr 14, 2011In the climax of the new Foo Fighters documentary, Back and Forth, the band stand deep in the iconic Wembley Stadium bowl, surrounded by 85,000 screaming fans at one of two sold-out headlining June, 2008 shows. Dave Grohl, before being overcome by emotion, asks, "How the fuck did this fucking band get so fucking big? Can you tell me that?"
It's a question Back and Forth answers not through any particularly scandalous or revelatory information, mostly because there doesn't seem to be any in the band's fairly squeaky clean record. Rather, it's an overall steady, chronological look at their 16-year career, one that, as most people know, got its start after the sudden end of Nirvana.
The story, from day one to present, is told in a series of individual sit-down interviews with all the members of Foo Fighters (past and present), as well as producer Butch Vig, who serves almost as bookends to the film, having worked with Grohl when he started in Nirvana and as producer on the new Foo Fighters album, Wasting Light. The interviews serve primarily as personal narrations of events, and each person is engaging in their own right, but it's when they offer insight into the band's growing pains and personal struggles that the film is particularly effective.
When Grohl candidly reflects on his Nirvana days, Cobain's death, Foo Fighters' personnel changes and drummer Taylor Hawkins' 2002 overdose, or when ex-drummer William Goldsmith recalls Grohl re-recording all his drum parts on 1997's The Colour and the Shape, the film takes a heavy turn. And aside from Hawkins' one slip-up with drugs (he was comatose for weeks), the majority of the band's drama comes in the form of personnel switches ― Goldsmith leaving, guitarist Pat Smear leaving, his replacement, Franz Stahl, being asked to leave, and his replacement, Chris Shiflett, never feeling quite secure in his role. Not to mention bassist Nate Mendel's decision to leave, sending Grohl on a bender one night, only for Mendel to retract his decision the next morning.
None of it's cheap, just genuine emotion that's the result of hurt feelings. Otherwise, it's no secret that the band are a group of smart, funny, hard-working guys, and this comes across consistently, providing a ton of engrossing, even uplifting anecdotes and insights, all to the backdrop of (often hilariously unflattering) vintage photos, studio and tour videos, and performances.
Not unlike the band's career off-screen, Back and Forth gets a little less interesting in its final third ― the music gets a little more serious, a little more radio-rock predictable, and as the band settle into the comforts that massive fame and family life afford, their already tame life gets tamer. It's like Grohl says at one point in the film: there was no real clear point at which they blew up to become one of the biggest bands in the world, just a series of seizing the opportunities they worked hard for.
The steady-as-she-goes process doesn't render the last part of the film uninteresting; it just doesn't feel as vital. Even as the band radically change their recording process for the new album ― live in Grohl's garage, to analog tape ― the film draws to a close on that studio footage, at Grohl's house, where all the members bring their families and they barbeque, hang out and swim in the pool when they aren't recording.
Back and Forth is insightful enough to please true fans, but it's tough to fit a prolific 16-year career into one film. It does a good job of covering all the bases, and with the big sound and look of the film, there aren't many casual fans ― of the Foos or music in the last 20 years in general ― that will be disappointed. (Spitfire)