Release Date(s)2015 (April 7, 2015)
Studio(s)Roswell Records/Worldwide Pants/HBO (RCA)
- Film/Program Grade: A
- Video Grade: B
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: B+
When Foo Fighters front man Dave Grohl revealed that the band was about to record its eighth studio album in early 2013, it came as something of a surprise to fans – the band had previously said they were taking a hiatus after their acclaimed 2001 album Wasting Light. While on tour, though, inspiration struck unexpectedly. The band frequently complained that they seldom got to see much of the cities they played in. So the idea emerged: Why not record each song on the new album (which would come to be called Sonic Highways) in a different city, taking the time to experience each, and use local musicians as guest players? When the concept was shared with David Letterman, a longtime friend of the band, his Worldwide Pants production company put Grohl in touch with HBO and the idea for a documentary series to accompany the album was born.
Each of its eight episodes follows the making of one of the album’s songs. But here’s the real surprise: Rather than simply documenting the recording sessions, Grohl spends most of his time exploring the musical history of each city. The series begins in Chicago, where Grohl attended his first concert as a teenager. It shifts to Washington D.C., where Grohl grew up and first began playing music. Then we visit Nashville, Austin, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Seattle (where Nirvana exploded and Grohl recorded the first Foo Fighters album), and finally New York City. In each, we’re presented with a rundown of the city’s musical contributions – across all genres, and featuring much archival footage and imagery – and we’re treated to scores of interviews with legendary musicians with roots in each region. These include Rick Nielsen (of Cheap Trick), Steve Albini, Chuck Brown, Rick Rubin, Chuck D (of Public Enemy), Tony Joe White, Steve Earle, Joan Jett, Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris, Paul Stanley (of Kiss), Dolly Parton, Zac Brown, Joe Walsh (of the Eagles), Dr. John, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Mike D (of Beastie Boys), and many others. Grohl even sits down with President Obama in the finale. Each episode then closes with the band wrapping their recording session, followed by a stylized video performance of the finished song. I’ll tell you, I already knew a good deal about the history of 20th Century music, having worked in more than one record store in my day. And yet I learned things here that both surprised and delighted me.
Sonic Highways is presented on Blu-ray in 1.78:1/1080p video, with image quality that’s good if not remarkable. Keep in mind that, as a documentary series, there’s not much effort at cinematography here. The colors and detail are fine, but the archival material included in these episodes is obviously of varying quality. That’s not really a strike against the Blu-ray presentation though. This 3-disc set presents the series accurately and in better-than-broadcast quality, as you’d expect.
The series’ soundtrack is presented in two English options: TrueHD 5.1 and LPCM 2.0. The TrueHD soundstage is big and wide, with plenty of depth and excellent clarity. The dynamic range is also impressive. Each track from the album sounds phenomenal here.
The bonus content is on Disc Three and includes extended interview footage (featuring Dan Auerbach, Chuck D, Billy Gibbons, Gibby Haynes, Joan Jett, Ian Mackaye, Barack Obama, Dolly Parton, Carrie Underwood, and Joe Walsh – 38 minutes in all), as well as 8 additional Inside the Recording of Sonic Highways behind-the-scenes clips (111 minutes total) showing more of the recording of each song. It adds up to nearly three hours worth of material.
This project could so easily have veered into rock band vanity territory. Instead, it’s a truly illuminating and humanistic look the musical roots of America. Grohl has hinted that a second season of the series is being planned with HBO, either expanding to additional American cities or possibly to international locations. Until then, I simply can’t recommend the (now Emmy-nominated) first season of Sonic Highways more highly. If you love music as I do, it’s a genuinely rewarding experience.
- Bill Hunt