SXSW 2021: Under the Volcano review


‘The most famous person you’ve never heard of.’ So read the tagline for Gracie Otto’s acclaimed 2013 documentary The Last Impresario, an exploration of the life and times of renowned producer Michael White. The Australian director moves from theatre and film to the music industry for her latest project, again in the search for hidden treasure.

With Under the Volcano she strikes gold once more. Though his somewhat shy, retiring image may have been hidden from view by a mixing desk and the astronomical fame of the Fab Four, any Beatles fan worth their salt will know the name George Martin. But what did he do after the biggest band in history split? Nestled beneath the Soufrière Hills of Montserrat was an estate that the visionary music producer would transform into a tropical haven of creativity. Not a man you’ve never heard of, then, but possibly a studio.

Described by the effusive voices of Sting, Verdine White, Jimmy Buffett and Mark Knopfler – among others, a male-dominated who’s-who procession of recording artists speak lovingly of Martin and Air Montserrat, which for a decade between 1979 and 1989 gave rise to some of the era’s landmark albums. A one-of-a-kind idyl, and personable home away from home for musicians for once able to escape prying paparazzi and screaming fans, the volcanic soil, sea air and laid-back island lifestyle proved fertile ground for regeneration and rebirth.

It was just a matter of weeks after John Lennon was shot and killed in New York City, that Paul McCartney arrived to record with Stevie Wonder; after splitting in 1976, Elton John got his band back together in 1981 and would lay down some of his biggest ever hits at Air; there may have been trouble in paradise between the “three alpha males” of The Police, but only in these surroundings and under the sage, fatherly guidance of Martin could Synchronicity have been made. Casting an ever-present, if not overbearing, watchful eye over operations that the film recalls, Martin was unquestionably the driving force behind the studio.

However, Otto dedicates ample time to other faces and places across the island, whose influence, warmth, friendship, and even the occasional backing vocal, are felt in each and every note of records made here. Blues, the driver; George, the chef; Danny, who gave Sting (and others) windsurfing lessons; The Agouti, a local bar where Stevie Wonder played until 4am one night during his time on the island. There are precious, cherished memories that are almost inexpressible, the rarest of jewels that elevate Under the Volcano to something more than a catalogue of hits. There is a humble simplicity and purity to these stories – and the people who tell them – that preserve a moment in time now, sadly, lost to the past.

Nonetheless, the broad grins and smiling eyes recounting tales of drinking with Keith Richards, making coffee for Mick Jagger, remain joyful, life-affirming thirty years hence. Discovering the origins of songs – I’m Still Standing coming from a band member lying in a cloud of marijuana smoke a particular highpoint – is a further feather in the film’s cap, and though we do not hear her voice, a testament to the ease with which the now ageing musicians regale Otto with anecdotes.

Layering talking heads, archival footage from the island, London and elsewhere, as well as a wealth of photography, the director – and editor Karen Johnson who deserves great praise – keeps the film moving to the beat of whatever album is being recorded that week. And a kind of roaming, visual fade brings still black and white images to new life. Bookended by contemporary footage taken from the exclusion zone created by the devastating 1995 eruption, Under the Volcano’s closing tracks are told in sombre, minor tones, but this snapshot of the pre-digital era preserves a timeless bounty that overflows with love and will live long in the memory.

SXSW 2021 takes place between the 16-20 March. You can follow CineVue’s coverage here.

Matthew Anderson | @MattAndo63