Studio 666: Learn to Die

10050 Cielo Drive. That’s the street address of the Sharon Tate mansion where she was murdered by three members of the Manson Family. Famously, the last resident of the mansion was Trent Reznor, who occupied the space, dubbing it Le Pig (words scrawled on the front door with blood by the murderers). Out of an interest in a weird space that captures something intangible about American Folklore, Reznor recorded Nine Inch Nails’ second “studio” album The Downward Spiral (1994) on the premises. The house has since been demolished but Reznor kept the front door as a keepsake.

You’ve got to get the band out of the studio. That’s where they might find a new sound, something new to anchor onto that develops unique acoustics, where the space is just another instrument for recording. Good artists use their instruments, great artists realize the studio is the essential acoustic instrument at play. Famously, The Band recorded albums while sharing living spaces at Bob Dylan’s ranch, inspiring many other acts to seek out non-traditional recording spaces. Radiohead occupied the 17th century manor of St Catherine’s Court for their magnum opus OK Computer (1997); New Order and The Cure also recorded there. Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Queen, and Led Zeppelin all recorded in Clearwell Castle in England. Rumor has it the space is haunted, but deep within the architecture, there are the echoes of some of the finest rock music recorded. Red Hot Chili Peppers recorded Blood Sugar Sex Magik (1991) and Stadium Arcadium (2006) at Rick Ruban’s Laurel Canyon mansion. Drummer Chad Smith was so utterly convinced it was haunted, he wouldn’t stay the night with the band.

“If you have a problem with it, talk to Jimmy Page,” Dave Grohl says of the recording situation. He’s acting? The Foo Fighters are all acting? They are not actors. They cannot act. They can play music very well. They do a lot of that, too. As the band convenes to figure out what to do about their tenth album, they need a new kind of spark to motivate their creative process. Their grubby label executive, played by Jeff Garlin (who plays best off of Grohl, but is in little of the movie), decides a non-traditional recording space is the ticket. A band once recorded at the house they’re assigned to and the lead singer committed suicide. It’s haunted by spirits and a gnarly acoustic space where just the right positioning of the five-member band into a kind of pentagram shape allows every thud of drums and pluck of the guitar to awaken the tortured history of the space.

Not all of the Foos seem game. Again, they are not especially actors. Pat Smear feigns just about the least interest. He’ll just be his aloof self. The other members play along with the Dave Grohl-written story, if not to humor him, then because they’ve always been a band that’s just having a good ass time and not overthinking their presentation. Dave Grohl and Taylor Hawkins are genuinely committed to the spoof music horror concept and that basically works, with them being the public faces of the band.

It plays lightly as a horror movie. This achieves a soft effect where it’s more interesting spending time with a beloved fun rock band than it is watching a movie with them in it for purely cinematic reasons. It is funny, though, as B.J. McDonnell’s super loose direction eventually gives way to some core horror tropes. There are kills in the movie and they are actually gory and fun. Which is funny when the horror and movie of it all otherwise plods along. It’s rarely regrettable as a music curio even when it doesn’t hold up as a fully formed piece of filmmaking (and wouldn’t it be utterly ridiculous if that’s what this tried to be?)

Studio 666 operates at its best when the Foo Fighters do what they do best: make simple and fun music and utilize the screen as a way to express their rock star personas. It’s fun watching Grohl wail away at a guitar that exudes haunting anachronistic melodies (he claims to discover a new L-sharp chord even, which is a characteristic bit of silliness). The fun bit about the music is that Grohl becomes possessed by a demon and wants to write a never-ending song — “think 2122 x 2122.” It’s less fun for the rest of the band, who simply have to put up with his frenzied creative process and having taken this all a little too far, which feels like the right analog for what’s happening in the film also. But sometimes, the spirit of the collective is there, and it’s joyous for longtime fans (I assume this includes all present company). Sometimes the group’s collaboration just works as it always have and they can share a “Pearl Jam High Five” (that’s a good bit).

Sometimes you’ve got to get the band out of the studio. I’ve seen Foo Fighters live a few times and however you feel about the recorded works, their songs are meant for big arenas and Van Halen-like good times. They embrace rock as a simple expression, staying true to their roots as a Seattle Band, and outlasting so many of their former company by simply staying the course. They seem to have a bug to try something new. Last year, we got the Dee Gees album of Bee Gees covers. And it was fine to listen to once. The new movie is the same way. In the vein of Kiss Meets the Phantom in the Park (1978), there’s room for simple celebrations of a band and their relationships to each other. The music video era may be dead but Foo Fighters float by on a pure nostalgic ephemera for rock bands who are in it for the right reasons. That’s all reflected in this odd pseudo-horror movie, which is not a major success of filmmaking but is yet another success of a band not taking themselves too seriously and making wickedly fun work in the process.


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