Documentary Review: The pop/rock soundtrack of the ’80s recorded “Under the Volcano”

Much of the enduring pop and rock of the 1980s had this shimmering, sunny sheen and rhythmic bounce to it, and that wasn’t just a product of the end of disco and punk as they were absorbed into New Wave and the New Romantics. Nor can you attribute it simply to the transition from analog recording to the pristine reproduction of digital.

From “I’m Still Standing” to “Walk of Life,” “Sailaway” to “Reflex,” everybody from Phil Collins and Boy George to Earth Wind & Fire, Annie Lennox, Stevie Wonder, Dire Straits and James Taylor recorded on the under-populated West Indian island of Montserrat, at Sir George Martin’s remote live-in studio in paradise, literally “Under the Volcano.”

Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder harmonized to “Ebony & Ivory.” The Police peaked, and then took their final bows as a recording band there. The Rolling Stones shook off the “oldies act” label one last time with “Steel Wheels” and Jimmy Buffett, the second artist to record in AIR Studios Montserrat, provided the sing-along anthem for the place, which operated from 1979-1989 — “Volcano.”

That volcano, Soufrière Hills, was “the presiding spirit over the island” and their recording sessions there, according to Sting of The Police, who conjured the masterpieces “Every Breath You Take” and “Every Little Thing She Does is Magic” at AIR, and shot a frolicsome music video to accompany the latter on the island.

Martin, already a legend for having recorded The Beatles, dreamed up the ultimate “artist friendly” recording experience where extremely famous people could escape the world, the press and their fans and record in a place with a state-of-the-art studio, a view, a pool, “banana hammock” friendly beaches, rum punches and wind surfing lessons.

“There was no rush,” Verdine White from Earth Wind & Fire (the “Faces” LP) recalls. “There was no clock.”

It was “like living in a surrealist painting,” Duran Duran’s Nick Rhodes says. “Black sand, giant iguanas.”

Elton John “got the band back together” and turned out his seminal MTV era LP “Too Low for Zero,” composing with Bernie Taupin “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues” and “I’m Still Standing” (inspired by a stoned colleague’s protests that he was still on the job).

The Police peaked with their “Ghost in the Machine” and “Synchronicity” LPs, clashing with each other as they recorded their era-defining albums in Montserrat.

And after they finished, Sting stuck around “for a holiday,” and Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits asked him in to do the “I want my, I want my, I want my MTV” bit on “Money for Nothing,” one of the hits that made “Brothers in Arms” the LP that put that band in the Rock’n Roll Hall of Fame.

“You can hear the island” all through the LP, band member John Illsley says. Especially on the dreamy, laid-back “So Far Away From Me,” with its oceanic breeze synthesizer and calypso -tinged guitar.

Giles Martin, son of George, recalls the “quirky” staff of locals, many of them musically inclined, as making AIR Montserrat “like staying in Fawlty Towers,” and Australian filmmaker Gracie Otto makes sure to include many locals — displaced by the volcano, that oddly enough, was not what killed the studio — among the interview subjects.

From dive “night club” owners, one of whom played host to a Stevie Wonder jam session (recorded on audio tape), staff at AIR to Davey Sweeney, the colorfully charming windsurfing instructor many of the stars remember with great fondness, we hear and see how they pitched in on harmony vocals, percussion and what have you, and enjoyed their encounters with the famous.

But it wasn’t the perfect fit for everybody, with the sailing, sun and rum-branded Buffett recalling the “colonial aspect to things,” Lou Reed (in archival footage) griping about the lack of “traffic” noise and Andy Summers of The Police lamenting how everybody in the band “entered into divorce proceedings” as they cut “Synchronicity.”

And still, “Under the Volcano” lacks some of the details, grit and personal dirty-laundry edge of the legion of earlier recording studio history documentaries — “Muscle Shoals” and “Sound City” among them.

Yet McCartney’s and Knopfler’s home movies, stills shots of parties, jam sessions and binges and the other footage rounded up here paints a winning picture of a time and a very sunny place — now gone — where the best of their era recorded the songs that defined it.

MPA Rating: unrated, some profanity, discussion of drug use

Cast: Sting, Jimmy Buffett, Nick Rhodes, Yve Robinson, George Martin, Stewart Copeland, Mark Knopfler, Davey Johnstone, Mick Jagger and Paul McCartney

Credits: Directed by Gracie Otto, scripted by Cody Greenwood and Gracie Otto. A Universal release.

Running time: 1:36


About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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