“You can tell a lot about a person by what kind of van they drive,” muses Dave Grohl, who’s sitting behind the wheel of the battered old red Falcon that he used to tour in, decades ago. “Like this piece of shit!” he adds with a self-deprecating grin. What Drives Us isn’t really about who’s behind the wheel of the pieces of shit that every touring band started out in, but about what made those people want to cram in among heaving cargos of equipment and humans with terrible personal hygiene standards for weeks, sometimes months, on end.
It’s a loving ode to life on the road and the earlier, scuzzier years of band-dom, before the glossy tour buses with flushing loos arrive. As such, What Drives Us is packed to the gills with rockstars, not least Grohl, who not only directed the film, but uses his easy charm as an interviewer to get the most out of his subjects.
He’s the perfect person to helm the film and not just because he seems to be best mates with everyone in it, from Ringo Starr to Fugazi’s Ian MacKaye. Grohl’s perfect because he gets it. He’s been there too, stuffed into a sweaty van with his pre-Nirvana punk group Scream, then with Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic in the grunge era. As other musicians recount tales of debauchery and the best ways to stack your gear into a rickety ride, Grohl nods his head in recognition before nattering with the new wave of young rock bands – namely Radkey and Starcrawler – about driving the same rewarding route he did 30 odd years ago.
Though a smattering of Brits are featured in the film, including AC/DC’s Geordie frontman Brian Johnson, this type of touring is a distinctly American tale, borne of a country where a 23-hour drive to play a single gig is no biggie. If you tried that in the UK you’d fall into the ocean after hour three, no matter what direction you were headed. But in the US you can tour for months on end and still not cover the whole country.
Though there are notable downs to life on the road – D.H. Peligro of punk icons Dead Kennedys explains how being the victim of vicious racism while on the backroads of the US in the 1980s fuelled his alcoholism which lead to a torrid relationship with heroin while playing with Red Hot Chili Peppers – overall this is a celebratory story. It’s one too which notably looks at the women who were so vital to the punk and hardcore scene of the 1980s, with Black Flag’s Kira Roessler, X’s Exene Cervenka and L7’s Jennifer Finch all looking misty-eyed back to their days in farty touring vans, as well as Annie Clark aka St Vincent, whose wry one-liners about life on the road hit almost as hard as her riffs.
It’s when Grohl lets his subjects recall their strangest experiences while trucking from show to show that the whole thing properly chugs into life, from MacKaye’s tale of roadside dead piglets to Steven Tyler’s yarn about a topless girl in Detroit who took her leg off and put a rose in it. At its core this is a film about seeking adventure – and just how brilliant it feels when you find it.
- Director: Dave Grohl
- Featuring: Taylor Hawkins, St Vincent, Ringo Starr
- Release date: April 30 (Coda Collection in the US, Amazon Prime Video in the UK)