Under the Volcano charts the rise and fall of AIR Studios Montserrat, the recording studio at the center of the pop music zeitgeist of the 1980s. (AIR is an acronym for Associated Independent Recording.) Built brick-by-brick and engineered using state-of-the-art equipment by The Beatles’ revered producer Sir George Martin in 1979, AIR Studios Montserrat was a special recording facility tucked away on an island paradise. Nestled in the looming shadow of an active volcano, the Caribbean hideaway managed to attract the biggest musical talent on the planet and was the source of mega-hits such as Dire Straits’ Money for Nothing and The Police’s Every Breath You Take.
AIR Montserrat witnessed and housed monumental events in music history, including the break-up of The Police, the reunion of The Rolling Stones, and the renewal of Paul McCartney’s spirit following the tragic murder of John Lennon. After a decade of hosting hits, and at the peak of its popularity, the studio was destroyed by Hurricane Hugo in 1989 and then further obliterated in 1995 when the volcano did what volcanos do… as one commentator says, “dormant also means potentially active.” It was the end of an era not only for music but also for the inhabitants of the island, whose homes and livelihoods were decimated.
Martin died in 2016 at the age of 90, but his widow Jane Martin and their son Giles Martin are interviewed in Under the Volcano. According to Giles, “My father was tired of the confines of a very rigid company structure, and he wanted a more artist-friendly place. Abbey Road obviously created great music, but the fridge was locked at night. [People working after hours at Abbey Road] had to break in to get milk for their cups of tea. Even the loo roll had the words Abbey Road [stamped] on it, so you wouldn’t steal it. It was like a very proper English factory.” George’s dream was to create the “anti-Abbey Road” studio, giving musicians complete freedom and a place to play and relax between rigorous recording sessions. What’s more, the impossible location gave them a break from fans, groupies, press, and paparazzi. On the other hand, as one concerned American interviewee points out, the closest major hospital was 4,000+ miles across the ocean in Miami.
In addition to the aforementioned, the filmmakers gathered recollections from the musicians themselves, former employees, and islanders. The tales of joy, excess, creativity, and even strife, are truly fascinating. While most musicians thrived in the remote utopia (Elton John), others felt isolated and stifled (Duran Duran). “I’m not sure we were in the right headspace to make the kind of record that might have been a little more chill,” says Nick Rhodes on why the band cut short on recording Seven and the Ragged Tiger at AIR. “We wanted to make something full of energy.” Being on the island brought out different sides of personality and temperament, but there’s no denying that AIR Montserrat was a vital catalyst for the writing and recording some of the most memorable pop and rock songs from the 1980s.
Directed by Gracie Otto, Under the Volcano uses the tried-and-true format of mixing archival footage with new interviews, plus tons of still photos and B-roll. While it may not be the most stylistic approach, I, for one, appreciate the linear, easy-to-follow arc. I also like how Otto interviewed the islanders and employees of the studio, whose recollections are every bit as valuable and entertaining as the big stars’. John Silcott, a local technician who worked at AIR Studios Montserrat while Dire Straits was recording their megahit album Brothers in Arms, reveals that he’s the Johnny who’s namechecked in the song Walk of Life. Another local talks about taking Elton John on a tour of Montserrat’s modest dive bars and how Stevie Wonder played piano at one of the watering holes till 4 AM.
Talking heads include members of The Police; Dire Straits’ members Mark Knopfler and Guy Fletcher; Jimmy “Margaritaville” Buffett; Duran Duran keyboardist Nick Rhodes; Ultravox frontman Midge Ure; Deep Purple members Tony Iommi and Roger Glover; Earth Wind & Fire bassist Verdine White; and Elton John Band members Nigel Olsson and Davey Johnstone. There are not many female interviewees, but there are a few and some clips of Annie Lennox in the studio with her Eurythmics counterpart, Dave Stewart.
There are several opinions presented that try to capture the unique alchemy of the setting. Police frontman Sting says, “I love the idea of wilderness on the edge of civilization. I think the volcano itself is a presiding spirit over the island. It gives you the sense that you’re living on the edge of something seismic [and] there’s definitely a mystique about the island.”
The third act of the documentary covers the devastating disasters that ended George Martin’s island dream and posit that the studio may have run the course of its magic anyway, thanks to the dawn of digital recording, the advent of the compact disc, and exciting new computer-generated recording techniques. I appreciate Otto’s inclusion of general historical context regarding how the studio itself was adversely affected in its waning year.
While it may be a tad too long, overall, Under the Volcano is well worth your time and will give you an enhanced appreciation for the iconic music of the 1980s.
See Under the Volcano on digital and VOD on August 17, 2021.