There’s no mistaking what Foo Fighters: Back and Forth really is: It’s a hour-and-a-half commercial for their next album, Wasted Light. As infomercials go, however, this one goes as far as your affection for the band and their music goes — the more you love the Foo, the more you’re likely to dig the documentary, although the reverse is also true.
The Foo Fighters are considered by many to be the “Last Great American Rock Band,” largely by virtue of surviving as long as they have, survival that’s all the more impressive given that the band was formed from the ashes of Sunny Day Real Estate and Nirvana, the band that nearly single-handedly killed pansy-ass ‘80’s “rock.” The first two acts of Back and Forth track the band’s formation, the revolving door of band members, and the toll that touring has taken on the band. The story is not too dissimilar to any “Behind the Music” style documentary: Drugs, drama, and near-death experiences. What sets it apart is the work of the Academy Award winning documentarian James Moll (The Last Days) and the immense sense of humor and charisma of frontman Dave Grohl. Also, the music.
Though it’s whitewashed to a degree, it’s also apparent from the documentary that Grohl is something of an egotist, though it’s earned egotism. He’s manipulative and passive aggressive, but it’s all in service of the band, a band that could probably survive with anyone, as long as Dave Grohl is the frontman. Grohl is not one of those, “All for one and one fall all” front men. There’s never any mistake about what the Foo Fighters is: It’s Dave Grohl’s band, which becomes clearly apparent after the first personnel change, when Grohl fired the the original drummer because he was incapable of living up to talents of Grohl, inarguably one of the best drummers in rock.
Grohl does open up about Kurt Cobain’s suicide some, but there are no new revelations. There’s no salacious gossip. He doesn’t go into details about his relationship with Cobain or Courtney Love or even Krist Novoselic (who does make an appearance late in the film). In fact, while Back and Forth offers a impeccably detailed account of the band itself, it doesn’t dig deep into the lives of the band members themselves beyond years-old reflections of member changes and performances (their Wembley performance being the highlight). The band has had disputes, but they’re all resolved peaceably, which is a tribue to Grohl — he may be a narcisisst, but he’s also a nice, likable guy. And funny. Nor is there anything about the rise of the Foo Fighters that sets it apart from the paint-by-numbers stories of other great bands outside of the Nirvana connection. It’s not a story, in other words, that would make for a particularly compelling band biography.
But book biographies do not have the benefit of the Foo Fighters’ music, which is really what makes Back and Forth so much fun to watch. The score can make a noticeable difference to any film, but when your movie’s soundtrack is the fucking Foo Fighters, you don’t need to prop it up with a lot of revelations and introspection. Just a lot of thrashing. A little Pat Smear guitar, a fat fucking riff, and Dave Grohl’s growl goes a long way. And as a commercial for their upcoming album, the recording of which is the focus of the film’s last act, the music speaks for itself, really. It’s like listening to the Foo’s greatest hits, interspersed with talking-head scenes. It would’ve been nice if the documentary had attempted to place the Foo Fighters into a broader historical context or if it had more than superficially addressed the transition from Nirvana to Foo, but when you’ve got “Everlong” and “Big Me” and “My Hero,” among many others, it’s harder to take issue with the substance when your face is melting off.