'What Drives Us' Is a Charmingly Earnest DIY Music Manifesto Directed by Dave Grohl
Starring Ringo Starr, the Edge, St. Vincent, Flea, Ben Harper, Brian Johnson, Lars Ulrich, Ian MacKaye, Steven Tyler
Published Apr 28, 2021For a guy who has spent 30 years as a very famous rock star, Dave Grohl sure likes to romanticize touring in a van. Foo Fighters were supposed to recreate their first-ever itinerary with their "Van Tour" before it was cancelled due to pandemic lockdowns, and now Grohl has directed What Drives Us, a documentary about the formative touring experiences of fellow rock stars. "People, especially these big musicians, they're kind of proud that they toured in a van," Dave Grohl says a few minutes into What Drives Us. Yup, we noticed!
Dave Grohl, being Dave Grohl, gets incredible access to an all-star cast of interview subjects, including Ringo Starr (the Beatles), Steven Tyler (Aerosmith), Ben Harper, St. Vincent, Brian Johnson (AC/DC), Flea (Red Hot Chili Peppers), Slash (Guns N' Roses), Tony Kanal (No Doubt), Exene Cervenka (X), Ian MacKaye (Fugazi, Minor Threat), the Edge (U2) and many more. Early on, Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich admits that he's never actually toured in a van, setting the tone for a film that doesn't actually have much to say about life in a van but is entertaining nevertheless.
For all the misty-eyed nostalgia and philosophizing about what van touring "means," no one says all that much beyond some variation on: I'm so grateful for the experience of touring America in a cramped van; now listen to me describe the very specific way we packed our gear into the back. As a filmmaker, Grohl doesn't fully seem to grasp the idea of "show don't tell," since he spends too long telling us about how great touring is rather than actually relating interesting stories from the road.
And when What Drives Us finally does get into the nitty-gritty, it's fascinating — like when Flea talks about playing jazz trumpet as a way to escape his abusive home life, Dead Kennedys drummer D.H. Peligro talks about his experiences with addiction, or when Ian MacKaye gives a history lesson on how D.O.A. and Black Flag invented touring as we know it. A quick-cut montage of near-death highway experiences coaxes some much-needed anecdotes out of the interview subjects.
The real success of What Drives Us is when it humanizes its larger-than-life subjects. For touring indie musicians, it might be a little patronizing to hear these rock stars glorify their supposed struggles — the road is tough, my friends! — but it also clarifies Grohl's vision of a shared music community. As he told Exclaim! earlier this year, "I love to imagine that all music is a community of people. Whether it's the biggest artists in the world, like Lady Gaga or Miley Cyrus, or bands you've never heard of but that play with incredible passion, we're all connected somehow." If that's his philosophy, then What Drives Us is his charmingly earnest manifesto. (Amazon Prime)