NEW YORK – Dave Grohl thought he was making a nostalgic film about the formative days of famous musicians. But then the pandemic happened.
Partly by design and partly by circumstance, “What Drives Us” became a surprisingly emotional documentary about the power of live music and the pain of its absence.
The Foo Fighters leader has become an effective storyteller on film, making the “Sound City” documentary on a legendary California music studio and the HBO series “Sonic Highways.” His latest is available for streaming Friday through the Coda Collection, a subscription streaming service, and Amazon Prime Video outside the U.S.
It centers on an experience common to most musicians, certainly rock bands. At some point they take the figurative leap of getting into a van with band members and bringing their music on the road.
“You've got to get in a van if you want to make it in this business,” said Ringo Starr, who told of the Beatles stacking themselves like firewood to keep warm after their windshield blew out on a frigid night.
Grohl started by swapping van stories with more than two dozen musicians. But the interviews grew deeper as they talked about why they got into these lives, hence the double meaning of the “What Drives Us” title. He started editing the interviews after the pandemic struck, and realized how much the need to share music onstage was a common theme.
“It was part of the conversation,” Grohl said. “But as time went on and we were starved for it, I realized that it was the most important part of the conversation. It's why we do it. No musician wants to stay in their basement for the rest of their life practicing scales.”
Their stories are funny and at times poignant; the Red Hot Chili Peppers' Flea talks about music as an escape from an abusive childhood. “Here's your golden ticket to Oz — go around in a van and play music with friends,” he said.