Foo Fighters: Back And Forth premiered in theatres back in April, getting one-time only screenings in various countries, just before the release of the band's latest stellar album, Wasting Light (read my review here). The theatrical showings were paired with a live performance of the band playing Wasting Light in its entirety from their California rehearsal studio (watch it here), and truth be told, I actually enjoyed the live performance a little more than the documentary at the time. Not that the doc was bad, mind you, it's just that my initial impression of Back And Forth was that it played as only slightly more weighty than an episode of VH1's Behind The Music, and I was just so blown away by both the new album and their performance of it that the live portion of the double bill had more of an impact on me. All of the new tracks, which the band had been playing live in the previous weeks to promote the album's release, impressively sounded like they'd already been road-tested for a good year. However, a second viewing of the documentary earned it a higher level of respect from me for the fairly thorough, if somewhat rudimentary, job that director James Moll does in summing up the band's often turbulent past, while providing a revealing look at their present with engaging footage of the band recording their latest album.
As Foo frontman Dave Grohl explains in Back And Forth, the band had to go through their growing pains underneath the ferocious spotlight that accompanied them after forming in the wake of the flameout of Grohl's previous group, Nirvana. Significant problems emerged within the group during the recording sessions for their second (and many would consider best) album, 1997's The Color And The Shape. Grohl, not happy with the parts that drummer William Goldsmith had laid down, decided to re-record them, but neglected to mention this decision to Goldsmith. Ultimately, it leads to Goldsmith quitting, whereupon Taylor Hawkins joins the group. Grohl acknowledges he handled the situation poorly, and an interview with Goldsmith reveals a man clearly still bitter about the way things were handled, as he tells Moll that "...him redoing the drum parts has never been explained to me". Bassist Nate Mendel adds some further interesting insight into the difficult recording sessions for The Colour And The Shape when he discusses working with a full-fledged producer for the first time in Gil Norton, a taskmaster who made Mendel humbly feel like he "wasn't a fully-formed musician" and who referred to Mendel and Goldsmith as "the rhythmless section". Further personnel changes are covered with the quitting and eventual return of second guitarist Pat Smear, Hawkins' 2001 drug overdose, Mendel's ill-advised decision to quit in the late 90's and return to his previous band, the obscure Sunny Day Real Estate (Grohl begged him not to and he ended up staying), and the audition and hiring of current guitarist Chris Shiflett, who replaced short-lived guitarist Franz Stahl, who had replaced Smear in 1997. Try to keep up here, people. It's been eleven years since Stahl was ousted due to a lack of musical chemistry with the rest of the band, and in his newly filmed interview segments he still seems completely destroyed at being fired, not to mention somewhat mystified by some of the circumstances that surrounded his departure. Oddly, his current band that I guarantee you've never heard of, are shown opening for the Foos at a recent L.A. club show, an experience that must have been highly emotional (and, one would assume, awkward) for Stahl.
The middle and latter parts of the band's career receive a little less attention due to the amount of time devoted to their earlier years and each member's pre-Foo Fighters resumes, but one of the moments from their recent past that does get highlighted, to great effect, is the band's triumphant 2008 concert at an 80,000 seat sold out Wembley Stadium in London. There's a fantastic shot of Grohl on stage, almost being overcome with emotion by both the scope of the event itself and the enormity of what it represents as a career milestone, while the camera then focuses in on Hawkins in the background as he is taken aback by his bandmate's emotional display. It's a strikingly pure moment in the movie, as it's not every day you see a huge rock star humbled in such a manner. The last 20 minutes of the 100 minute film documents some of the Wasting Light recording sessions, which were unconventionally recorded on analog tape in Grohl's garage with the producer of Nirvana's landmark Nevermind album, Butch Vig. Personally, I could have watched a full documentary on just this, as Moll captures the group in a relaxed, yet focussed atmosphere, that will lead to them creating what I think is their finest album yet. Footage of the band recording and rehearsing are mixed with them also spending time with their families and enjoying barbecues and swims in Grohl's backyard. The unorthodox familial/work environment is beautifully illustrated during one portion that shows Grohl's daughter interrupting him as he records guitar parts and writes lyrics for "Arlandria", pleading with her dad to take her swimming. Grohl's former Nirvana bandmate, Krist Novoselic, is also shown contributing bass to the recording of the song "I Should Have Known".
Yes, the Foo Fighters have packed a fair amount of drama into their 17 year career. That drama frequently doesn't paint Grohl in the best of light for the way he's handled some of the situations involving his bandmates, and the candour and "warts and all" nature of Grohl's interviews often feel like the Foo leader is cleansing himself of his past transgressions. In addition to the two previous examples mentioned, there's another eyebrow-raising account from Shiflett of the way Grohl went about having Smear return to the band in 2006. It's a credit to Grohl's immense likeability and talent (both of which are undeniable in this film) that despite his flaws, he still comes away from Back And Forth fairly unscathed.