For Those Who Came In Late: Record producer George Martin became famous for working with the Beatles. His involvement in the Fab Four’s albums earned him the nickname the Fifth Beatle. Martin was an employee of EMI when was he started working with the group. After they achieved much of their success, he left EMI and started Associated Independent Recording (AIR). He hired out his services and joined other top producers in becoming free-lancers rather than salaried employees of record companies. He created AIR studios, London in 1970. This was a technically advanced facility, that attracted many of the top talents of the day, like T-Rex, Pink Floyd, Queen, Roxy Music and The Sex Pistols.
UNDER THE VOLCANO is about the AIR Studio that Martin built on the Caribbean island of Montserrat in 1979. His idea was to invite musicians to make their music in a place where the natural environment was a calming influence and to remove the distractions of a big city. The creation of the Montserrat studio was at the dawn of the 1980s and the music business was changing; musicians and their product were becoming truly international, cross-promoted and ubiquitous. Popular songs were still pumped out on the radio as previously, but now they were in the movies, on soundtrack albums, commercials and thanks to the success of America’s MTV cable channel, they were all over television; Michael Jackson, Madonna, Prince and Whitney Houston were superstars, selling an amazing amount of product to young fans.
Thanks to the work of bands like the Beatles and producers like Martin, the studio was now seen as virtually another instrument in the creative process. Formerly, recording occurred as quickly as possible to save money. In the 1970s, experimentation became more common. The large budgets some artists could command, were being spent at studios with residential facilities. It could now take weeks or months to record new music.
Montserrat was a place Martin fell in love with when he visited on holiday. He enjoyed the unhurried pace and the way the islanders lived. Artists like Elton John, credit this laid-back vibe with assisting in their refocussing. His multi-selling album TOO LOW FOR ZERO (1983) was largely written and recorded there and brought him out of a mid-career slump. The Police recorded the highly successful GHOST IN THE MACHINE (1981) in Montserrat and the band members speak of that in interview. Other talking heads (but none of the Talking Heads) who speak of their experiences, include Jimmy Buffet, Nick Rhodes, Midge Ure, Tony Iommi and Mark Knopfler. Some of the AIR staff and the locals of Montserrat are also on hand to relate what it was like dealing with some of the most famous musicians in the world.
The film’s producer Cody Greenwood, had a family connection to the Montserrat, her mother, children’s author and artist, Frane Lessac, lived there and befriended Martin and his family. Greenwood got together with director Gracie Otto (THE LAST IMPRESSARIO) and this duo of Australians have brought together an excellent collection of Martin family photographs and home-movie footage as well as record company promotional imagery, that documents the place and the time in detail. Equally impressive, is the modern-day cinematography showing the island in its current state. The title UNDER THE VOLCANO has nothing to do with the 1947 Malcolm Lowry novel. It refers to the Soufrière Hills volcano which was a looming presence throughout the decade the studio was in Montserrat. The volcano became active in 1995 and two-thirds of the island’s population were forced to flee. However, the studio was destroyed by the earlier Hurricane Hugo, in 1989, that killed 67 people and caused billions in damage across the Caribbean.
UNDER THE VOLCANO is an excellently-made account of a special place that existed for a short time. Great things were created there by people who captured the eyes and ears of the world. The 1980s was the last decade of the type of rock that began in the 1950s. What seemed unstoppable forty years ago, would fragment into the culture, industry and technology that we have today. This film is an engaging portrayal of that distant time, when popular music peaked in its influence. When the world fell in love with a computer-animation of Dire Straits and Sting, singing “Money for Nothing” on MTV, about MTV. For a short period, music could be self-aware, culture-jamming and big money all in one package. AIR Montserrat played a role in that. It was a sanctuary for beloved, brilliant and indulged musicians in a fortunate era. And some of what they made there, remains a gift to us now. Duration: 90 minutes. (8/10)