SXSW Film Review: Under The Volcano (2021, Gracie Otto)

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Can a specific place affect the sound of a record? I’m not talking about regional scenes, or Sufjan’s Illinoise album, or how every single Chili Peppers song is about California in some way, or even how the equipment at a certain studio can elicit a different sound than another. What I’m talking about is whether just the simple act of recording in a certain geographical space can effect one’s state of mind. According to Under The Volcano, Gracie Otto’s documentary on the history of AIR Studios, it would seem the answer is yes.

Opened in 1979 by famed producer George Martin and located on the island of Montserrat, AIR studios was responsible for some of the top records of the 1980s from the likes of Elton John, Dire Straits, The Police, and several other notable names. So what was it that drew all of these top tier artists to this little island? For one thing, George Martin and general word of mouth, but for another, it seems that just the atmosphere of the studio environment and its surroundings had a lot of appeal. As Midge Ure notes in the film, “This little island had a heart you can feel.”

The film features lots of great footage and interviews with the many stars who recorded at AIR as well as the studio staff and others. The tales of how classic albums like Synchronicity and Brothers In Arms were made will be of definite interest to fans while stories of Elton John and Stevie Wonder playing shows at tiny local bars definitely give you that “wish I could have seen that” feeling. Other notable moments come in the form of stories like that of Jimmy Buffett wanting to buy up an entire bar just so that he and his band wouldn’t have to wait so long to get their next round of drinks. And the archival interview clip of Lou Reed talking about how he didn’t really care for the peaceful environs because “I need to hear traffic” is extremely on brand for Reed.

And of course, just like Chekov’s gun, the titular volcano, which for most of the film is pushed aside as just another passive inhabitant of the island, eventually does go off. By that point, Hurricane Hugo and the general drop in recording budgets over the course of the ’80s had already effectively put an end to AIR Studios Montserrat, but the volcano put the proverbial final nail on the coffin.

Still, while AIR Studios is no more, its legacy lives on, and Under The Volcano does a fine job of exploring that legacy.

Posted on by Paul in Movies, South By Southwest