UNDER THE VOLCANO (SXSW21) – Review by Rachel West

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Director Gracie Otto’s documentary Under The Volcano isn’t just a deep dive into famed music producer George Martin’s legacy through his groundbreaking AIR recording studio in the West Indies, it’s a love letter to the people of Montserrat.

Premiering at SXSW 2021, Otto’s documentary chronicles the tropical hideaway which saw some of the world’s biggest rock stars arrive on the tiny volcanic island of Montserrat to record what would become some of their most-influential and groundbreaking works. Founded by Sir George Martin – the honourary “fifth Beatle” who produced the Fab Four’s iconic sounds – AIR recording studio was a paradise nestled in the foothills of Montserrat’s Soufrière Hills volcano. Playing host to the biggest bands and musicians between 1979 and 1989 including the Rolling Stones, Duran Duran, The Police, Dire Straits, Elton John, Paul McCartney, Earth, Wind & Fire, Stevie Wonder, and Jimmy Buffet among countless more, AIR was a short-lived wonderland of the pre-digital age.

Each famous face descended on Martin’s island studio for its state of the art recording equipment and the relaxation and fun the remote West Indian island offered tour-weary rockers. As a private studio, AIR was home to the bands who ate, slept, swam in the glistening pool with panoramic views, and made music all in one spot. For the artists interviewed in Under The Volcano including all three members of The Police, Nick Rhodes of Duran Duran, Jimmy Buffet, Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits, and more, Montserrat was a place to recharge away from the flashbulbs of the paparazzi and inspire new sounds, with each artist leaving with profound affection for Montserrat and its people.

AIR was the place where McCartney came to record following the death of John Lennon. It is where Elton John got his original band back together for three albums in the 1980s. Where Sting, Andy Summers and Stewart Copeland balanced egos to record The Police’s mega-hits Synchonricity and Ghost In The Machine. And where Dire Straits recorded Brothers In Arms, one of the best-selling albums of all-time. By the time 1989’s Hurricane Hugo laid waste to the island and AIR, new digital recording techniques were paving the way of the future and the studio became a footnote in music history.

With the talent who called AIR home over the years, it is surprising it took so long to tell the story of the studio but if Otto’s documentary is the result, it has been worth the wait.

Working in chronological order, Otto and editor Karen Johnson keep the pacing humming along to fit whatever album was being recorded that week. Using extensive archival footage and newly-filmed interviews with the musicians, AIR technician and staff, and Martin’s son, music producer Giles Martin, Under The Volcano tells not just the technical achievements of AIR, but the personal ones behind the music.

Even with the big names featured in the doc, Under The Volcano’s strongest selling point is the interviews with humble Montserrat locals who, unfazed by the glamourous musicians descending on their island paradise, speak of Elton John buying rounds of drinks at a local watering hole and Stevie Wonder playing keyboards at a bar until 4am with a local backing band. There’s the AIR characters themselves: the friendly Danny who taught windsurfing lessons to Sting and others, Blues the driver who inspired his own song, and George the chef who still has rockers raving about his food decades later. These colourful characters are full of personality as they add heart to AIR’s story, providing warmth, levity and humour, as well as the occasional backing vocal. These are the welcoming islanders you want to have a drink with and hear their recollections of AIR, more so than the musicians.

Bookended with present-day footage of Montserrat and AIR which was devastated by the 1995 volcanic eruption, Under The Volcano ends on a high note of resilience, love, and affection for not just the past, but the island’s future.

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Rachel West

Based in Toronto, Rachel is a Senior Film Critic at ThatShelf.com. She has interviewed everyone from Michael Fassbender to Miss Piggy and has reported live from TIFF, the SAG Awards, Comic-Con, and the Golden Globes, among other events, and has contributed film writing and content to outlets including ET Canada, Telefilm, Global News, The National Post, Cineplex Magazine, and Letterboxd, among others. She is a member of the Toronto Film Critics Association. Find her on Twitter: @rachel_is_here