How’s this for an elevator pitch: it’s the 1980s, the music industry is at the peak of its pomp and decadence, exemplified by a cadre of swaggering, talented superstars churning out irrepressible and iconic earworms. A master producer wants to craft the perfect environment for creativity, so he builds a residential studio on a secluded island – where your only company is your band and the warm and gregarious locals. There’s only one caveat: the idyllic island has a dormant volcano at its centre.
Sounds like something from a movie? Well, it is – a documentary to be exact. Gracie Otto’s latest, Under the Volcano, uses this unique setting as a lens through which we see a defining period of music history. Deftly weaving archival footage with rich and interesting interviews, the film paints a vivid picture of a group of artists and songs which still resonate today.
The producer in question was George Martin, who’s forever associated with The Beatles – not simply as producer, but as an arranger who brought some of their most iconic compositions to life. And the location is Montserrat, a mountainous Caribbean island east of Puerto Rico and north of Venezuela. Ever the visionary, it was Martin’s dream to build the perfect studio, where artists, freed from malign external influences like the money men and hangers-on, would be free to just create.
And create they did – a murderer’s row of 80s superstars crafted some of their most iconic songs here. It hosted a collaboration between Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder; multiple Elton John recordings; and served as a restorative experience for both The Police and The Rolling Stones. Songs like “I’m Still Standing,” “Every Breath You Take,” and “Money For Nothing” were produced on the idyllic island. Though it’s worth noting, that the Montserrat recording process wasn’t as effective for other artists like the more urbanite Duran Duran, and Lou Reed who, when discussing the Montserrat studio remarked: “I need to hear traffic.”
But the richness of the documentary isn’t purely the anecdotes and insights into the inner workings of these megastars of yore. Otto wisely highlights the locals that were just as integral to the island as the beautiful landscapes. People like the chef, the housekeeper and a windsurfing instructor that catered to the island’s guests give the documentary its heart and colour. The film is laced with fun anecdotes – that we won’t spoil here – that give an insight into how unique this period was. Imagine, sipping your beer in a secluded dive bar in Monsterrat and Elton John pops in for a pint, or Stevie Wonder hosts an impromptu gig that goes on until four in the morning.
At its core, the piece feels like a love letter to the music of the era – it was a time of decadence where a band could decamp to a secluded island for months to produce their album. As the documentary touches on, shifts in technology altered this irreversibly. With the dawn of CDs and then digital, minimising cost became paramount. So, the traditional ideal music-making: the band all together in the studio evolved into the more regimented process of modern recording. The live studio, and George Martin’s style of recording, captured “the sympathy, or understanding” between the notes that gave the music its unique energy. It’s a romantic notion of course, but there’s no denying that the music produced during the era was special – with the material that came out of Montserrat a prime example.
And what songs they were. A lot of these songs are foundational 80s classics, and consequently have been played to death – they are a part of the wallpaper at this stage, the kind of tunes you remember hearing on the radio as a kid. Hearing the songs, recontextualised within the documentary, restores the power that they’ve lost through their constant repetition through the decades.
Almost poetically, as the glossy sheen of the 80s passed on to the more low-key era of the 90s, the studio in Montserrat was laid to waste. A devastating hurricane hit the island in 1989 – over 11,000 residents lost their homes. And in 1995, the island was further devasted when the long-dormant volcano erupted, making large swathes of the island uninhabitable.
Under the Volcano serves as an ode to a lost studio, but also to a lost time. The studio rose and fell with the 80s, and the music industry that surrounded started to shift rapidly. So, like the studio, the pomp of overblown, dramatic music was a relic of the past. But the documentary serves as both a celebration and overview of a beloved era of music, deftly underlaid with a love for the people of Montserrat. For music fans of the late 70s and 80s this is a must-watch, but music fans of all stripes will find something to love in this sharp, thoughtfully crafted documentary.