In the new documentary directed by legendary musician Dave Grohl, what started as a movie about touring ended up becoming a movie about connection.
No man is an island, or so the story goes. And yet in the year 2021, every human being on this planet has never been so isolated. Aside from pandemic restraints, we’re constantly competing with each other, be it for a better job, more followers, more cash – the list goes on. But what if there was an opportunity to escape that? In its essence, Dave Grohl’s documentary What Drives Us proposes an alternative to the individualistic and competitive rat race that’s become so morally dispiriting to our society — music. Pursuing your art, getting in a shitty van and becoming one with the people pursuing it with you; there are few other examples, if any, of individuals being united like that, especially in times like these.
In making that point, Grohl answers the question that he poses in the early development of the film, which saw him shift from simply capturing what was special about van touring to asking “why the fuck people leave everything behind and just sort of quit life and start playing music and wandering around with their friends.” The documentary contrasts the beginnings of some of the biggest artists in the world with what van touring still looks like to prove that, as Grohl narrates, every story is “the same”. Missouri band RadKey, who have been touring since forming over a decade ago, explain their inception right before U2’s The Edge dives into what got him started. Immediately and over and over again in the film, Grohl confirms his assumption that the experience is shared, whether you’re an act just starting out or one of the most successful musicians on the planet. He uses DIY footage to complement the fact that anyone can pick up a guitar and become a rockstar (endearingly harking back to his early days in Foo Fighters and Nirvana), the same way that the rockstar character in Grohl can decide to veer out of his lane and direct a documentary simply for the opportunity to connect with like-minded members of his community.
Like his history in grunge, a large amount of the footage used in What Drives Us is gritty, as Grohl asserts that touring “can be both disgusting and beautiful all at once.” On the one hand, PB&J sandwiches, dirty socks and long drives in close proximity all colour a picture that doesn’t exactly imply living the dream. On the other, there’s the camaraderie you see between the bands in their old tour footage, the relationships they hold to this day, and of course, the shows. The former is a chore, but the latter is the lonely soul’s happy ending: experiencing a kinship, a unity, a mission, that the society that you’ve “escaped” from simply refuses to support or accommodate. As St. Vincent puts it, music enables artists to become “close in a way that other fucking co-workers at the bank couldn’t possibly know.”
That’s not to say that it’s all sunshine and daisies. What Drives Us is predominantly a warm reflection on the unique phenomenon of unity through music, and Dave Grohl telling Lars Ulrich that he knows some people that might be able to help his band Metallica break big is an unmissable moment. But just like everything else in this world, music isn’t immune to discrimination and exclusivity. Dead Kennedys drummer D. H. Peligro recalls being targeted based on the colour of his skin from day one, amid a battle with alcoholism and addiction. There are no anecdotes on sexism, sexual harassment and assault, although Grohl does do enough to back up the film’s premise and the dark side of touring, while touched on, is not what this documentary’s about.
At the end of the day, whether you’re in focus acts RadKey and Starcrawler or Slayer, Metallica, Aerosmith or U2 (you name it, Grohl’s got it), Grohl concludes that touring “creates this unique perspective that we all share.” “We” is the operative word in that sentence, with What Drives Us ultimately giving us the opportunity to appreciate the way that music restores purity within our connections with those around us. By capturing that phenomenon, Grohl encourages new bands and old to return, as soon as they can, to that calling. Lars Ulrich articulately closes out: “You’re connecting to the music, you’re connecting to your fellow band members and you’re connecting to the audience. That, to me, is what keeps me alive.”