Dave Grohl's new film What Drives Us should really come with a trigger warning for anyone sorely missing the simple pleasure of seeing a live gig, let alone anyone deprived of the sheer joy of actually performing. I thought I was suffering, but it's nothing compared to the existential crises that lockdown has brought on for some musicians. As Nick Cave eloquently put it in a post on his site The Red Hand Files in January: "There is a terrible yearning and a feeling of a life being half-lived. I miss the thrill of stepping onto the stage, the rush of the performance, where all other concerns dissolve into a pure animal interrelation with my audience. I miss the complete surrender to the moment, the loss of self, the physicalness of it all, the feeding frenzy of communal love, the religion, the glorious exchange of bodily fluids..." Other musicians such as Anna Calvi and Mike Hadreas aka Perfume Genius said much the same to the Observer two months later. What Drives Us assembles a different cast of contributors - Ringo Starr, The Edge, AC/DC's Brian Johnston, Steven Tyler of Aerosmith, Metallica's Lars Ulrich, Slash, Duff McKagan and Flea, to name just a few - but the sentiment is very much the same: live performance is a musician's lifeblood.
It's worth noting, however, that the documentary - which follows in the footsteps of Grohl's previous film projects Sound City and the Sonic Highways series - was not provoked by the pandemic. What Drives Us started out life as a celebration of the humble tour van and its integral role in music culture but, as the Foo Fighters frontman acknowledges, it soon became about something much bigger: the journeys both literal and metaphorical that bands take from basements and high school halls, through playing to handfuls of people in one-horse towns, to performing for thousands in enormodomes.
The result - if you wanted to be cynical and uncharitable - is largely a bunch of minted, ageing rock stars getting misty eyed through rose-tinted glasses about their past, while sitting comfortably in self-built studios or hollow Hollywood mansions (hello No Doubt's Tony Kanal!). (At least ex-Minutemen man Mike Watt has the decency to keep it real by being interviewed in what looks like a broom cupboard.) And yet their stories of the early days, romanticised though they may be, are engaging, and their undimmed passion for the profession that they chose (or that chose them) - and for performance in particular - is abundantly evident.
Vans do figure heavily - as the invaluable means of getting from gig to gig, of course, but also as the make-or-break space in which successful bands truly bond. "It can be both disgusting and beautiful all at once", Grohl says. "What happens in the van is the foundation of who we become." L7's Jennifer Finch talks about how the circumstances foster immaturity but also maturity (because you have to learn to live together in close confinement). Annie Clark aka St Vincent suggests that being crammed into a claustrophobic (and often nauseatingly stinky) space creates a kind of cabin fever that means that when you get on stage "you just want to freak out".
So much for what drove these artists literally - what about psychologically? A simple and fundamental desire to escape the everyday, a lust for adventure and discovery, a devil-may-care determination to hit the road and see what happens. The life of a musician represents liberation from the strictures of society and the stultifying effects of stasis. Ian MacKaye of Minor Threat and Fugazi explains how trailblazing punk/hardcore bands DOA and Black Flag mapped out routes, connected venues and promoters and established networks across the US through relentless touring. As a member of Scream and then Nirvana, Grohl profited from those pioneering excursions, but going on tour he still felt the thrill of stepping into the unknown. The journey, he suggests, is always more important than the final destination: "The reward has to be the experience."
There are occasions when Grohl's directorial satnav malfunctions (such as a detour into former Dead Kennedys and Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer D H Peligro's descent into drug addiction and subsequent recovery), and the film would also have benefitted from a firmer narratorial hand on the wheel. But for the archive photos and footage, and as an ode to life on stage and on the open road, What Drives Us is irresistible - a love letter to live music, and indeed music itself.
(An edited version of this review has been published on the Buzz website.)