I was talking with my colleague, Martin Rickman, the other day about the Foo Fighters‘ new rock and roll van life documentary, What Drives Us, and he summed up Dave Grohl in a way that I hadn’t heard before: “He’s the Guy Fieri of rock.” Whether you take that as an insult or not is subjective. To me, it’s a spot-on assessment of Grohl (who directs the doc, which you can stream now through the Coda Collection on Prime), someone that is the ultimate ambassador for a more uncomplicated and less self-serious kind of rock and roll, and universally known as a good guy who always seems like he’s having fun doing what he loves.
To many, Grohl (like Fieri) is an appealing and positive part of the pop culture landscape. This, of course, makes him a target to those who view his whole thing as manufactured and inauthentic. Because trying is often regarded as such, especially within the world of rock where, historically, likeability hasn’t been quite as effective a mythmaker as sex, drugs, and indifference. Somehow Grohl found a way around that, though. Good for him and good for the survival of the rock and roll aesthetic, frankly, because while the music has been downshifted somewhat in the cultural hierarchy, the brand needs someone to keep the flame alive and make it seem cool to grab a guitar, jump into a van, and see if magic happens.
All of this isn’t to say that Grohl has lost all other relevance. The Foo Fighters still churn out radio-friendly cuts. Sure, they don’t reach the level of their past hits, but in what way is that unique for a band that’s been at it for a quarter-century? I personally liked parts of the recent Medicine At Midnight with the funky ambition of “Shame Shame” and the Lemmy-inspired muscle of “No Son Of Mine.” I want to sit in an arena with 20,000 people shredding my throat to “The Sky Is A Neighborhood” from 2017’s Concrete And Gold after running through “My Life” and “Stacked Actors” from days gone by. And they’ll sell out that arena and a bunch of other ones because people love this band and the way they still play loud and fast. Again, uncomplicated.
Grohl’s continuing relevance is what gives his second (third?) act as a documentarian and very specific rock historian credibility. That and the fact that he’s pretty good at it, bringing unique access and perspective to stories about the spaces and cities where music history has been built brick by brick with Sound City and the Sonic Highways docuseries. When you think about it, switching things up to focus on the connective tissue between those things makes perfect thematic sense, and so here we are with What Drives Us, another excuse to float in the nostalgia with Grohl, the other Foo Fighters, and a few famous rockers (Steven Tyler, The Edge, Slash, Flea, Tony Kanal) who deliver a mixed bag of memories and aphorisms.
The insights derived from the experience of watching this doc are… fine. Rock greybeards talk all about the experience of piling into an Econoline or other metal beast and how it forged a sense of family with their bandmates while archival images of babyfaced versions of them occasionally dot the screen.
Grohl’s central thesis is that there’s a commonality to the experience of a van tour, something that’s illustrated by appearances by St. Vincent and a Missouri-based punk band, Radkey, who rides around the country in a rented van with their dad as a roadie. But while Radkey gets a few minutes to tell their story, I wanted more, specifically around the challenges of touring in a van and getting your name out in modern times (especially since I’m now pretty obsessed with their music thanks to the doc). That’s something Grohl, Flea, and others aren’t going to be able to speak to. All of this sparks a wonder on if this project might have been better served going the Sonic Highways docuseries route where Grohl could focus whole episodes on some of the feature’s more compelling artists like Radkey or Dead Kennedys drummer D.H. Peligro, who goes into detail on his substance abuse struggles throughout his career and how it took him to a point where he was homeless.
Aside from Peligro, there really isn’t much about the downfall of life of the road, nor is there the expected sleaze about groupies and random hookups. Maybe that’s because Grohl is shining a light on the moment before the trappings of fame began to impose themselves on these musicians or maybe it’s in the name of his broad reputation as a nice guy who wouldn’t traffic in such stories. This is not a complaint, by the way. If you want that kind of on-the-road confessional, there are plenty of other places to get it. But it’s an interesting omission. As is the sparsity of Nirvana references and reflections or really much at all to do with the Seattle scene from which Grohl was launched (after his start in DC with Scream, which does get some real estate here). Though, again, it’s not like those stories aren’t out there.
Similar to the feelings evoked when watching the Radkey and Peligro segments, I wanted for a full episode around Grohl’s own tour stories, which are heavily tilted toward the first Foo Fighters tour here (Grohl’s continued possession of the 1995 Ram van that they used is a key point in the story). Oddly, you’ll get more from Grohl on his time on the road with Nirvana in a recent THR interview than you do in the doc.
What Drives Us is sometimes scattered and too short. It could have hit a few notes with more force and focus if given more time or more priority in planning, but it nevertheless stands out as another solid entry in Grohl’s growing filmography. It’s also another entry in his (intended or not) efforts to sell the awesomeness of the rock and roll odyssey with its ingrained rebellion, camaraderie, chaos, crowds, and the exhalation that comes from performing in front of a crowd as they join you in celebrating the music. If you watch this and don’t wish you were an 18-year-old kid, checking out of your life to join the rock and roll circus, then something’s wrong with you, not What Drives Us.
‘What Drives Us’ hits Amazon Prime on Friday, April 30th.