George Martin had a dream. After years of unprecedented success as the Beatles' producer, he wanted to open a music studio far away from cities - a place where musicians could relax and tap into their deepest creativity. Montserrat was about as unlikely a spot as he could have imagined, considering the island was home to a dormant volcano. Nevertheless, that's where he opened AIR Studios, luring in some of the biggest names in the business. It's a virtual guarantee that at least one or two of your favorite albums were recorded there. The documentary Under the Volcano looks at the glorious life and tragic demise of AIR.
Early scenes focus on the development of Martin’s idea. Recognizing both the pressures and the temptations of city dwelling, he envisioned a paradise where musicians would be able to chill out as they recorded, putting them into a calmer state of mind that would foster new ideas. We learn how he chose Montserrat and how he navigated the fact that hauling heavy, sophisticated equipment to the location was almost impossible.
With that in place, Under the Volcano gives us interviews with some of the famous rockers who spent time at AIR. Sting and his band mates in The Police remember how the isolation of the studio actually exacerbated tensions within the band, despite coming up with some of their biggest hits (such as "Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic") there. Nick Rhodes recalls Duran Duran pushing their sound in new directions with the "Seven and the Ragged Tiger" album. Dire Straits frontman Mark Knopfler was sufficiently inspired by the laid-back vibe to write his classic "Walk of Life."
Others who came were Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney, Jimmy Buffet, and Elton John. The latter found the inspiration for "I'm Still Standing" from a conversation he had while at Montserrat. The movie makes it clear how the vibe of the island put the artists into a different frame of mind. Music of the '80s literally would not be the same had AIR not existed.
And then there was the volcano. It went from being dormant to being active, destroying a large swath of the island and rendering AIR unusable. By the time the film gets to this tragedy, director Gracie Otto has sufficiency conveyed what a special place the studio was that we can easily mourn the loss of it.
There really isn't any grand story here. Under the Volcano is a snapshot of a specific location at a specific point in time. Candid reflections from the stars are fun, though, and we certainly get an appreciation for how strongly George Martin worked on behalf of the artists whom he hosted. That makes it a documentary well worth seeing for any serious rock music buff.
out of four
Under the Volcano is unrated, but contains adult language and discussion of sexuality/drug use. The running time is 1 hour and 36 minutes.