SXSW 2021 Review: Under the Volcano

Year: 2021

Runtime: 90 minutes

Director: Gracie Otto

By Joan Amenn

The documentary “Under the Volcano” (2021) will be a nostalgic trip back in time for those of us who frequented our lamented, lost local “Tower Records” in the 1980’s. It’s a frequently rollicking, fun watch but there is a wistful sadness that looms over it like the large volcano that the film’s title references. Director Gracie Otto succeeds in capturing the music of an era and also hints at the toll of natural disasters on the native inhabitants of the island of Montserrat, where the film takes place.

George Martin is, of course, legendary for his collaborations with the Beatles, but “Under the Volcano” focuses on his post-Beatle life and how he created his own studio on the small Caribbean island of Montserrat. The fact that a not quite dormant volcano was a predominant feature of this place did not seem to phase him in the least as he set about transforming his tropical estate into AIR Studios. To his credit, he did hire many islanders to work with him. In interviews with Otto, all of them say how grateful they are for the generosity and kindness shown them not only by Martin himself but the multitude of music legends who flocked to the island. Everyone who was anyone in the music industry seemed to have found their way to this combination tropical playground and creative retreat. The film shows clips of famous songs that were products of the Montserrat muse that worked its magic at Air Studios. Hilariously, the only musician who was immune to the island’s tropical charms was Lou Reed who emphatically announced his need for an urban scene to create in. Of course.

While the end of studio recording and a couple of natural disasters spelled out the doom of Air Studios, the documentary captures the wonderful playfulness of making music in paradise. However, it leaves lingering questions of how the native people can continue to survive natural disasters that have ravaged their island with increasing frequency now that the rich and famous no longer lavishly spend on what was once their perfect getaway. “Under the Volcano” tells the story of the musicians who visited but may give the people who actually live in Montserrat short shrift in the process.

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