‘Under the Volcano’ Review: Making Music in Paradise

Between this film and “Rockfield: The Studio on the Farm,” there seems to be a minor vogue for documentaries about recording studios this year. The pretext for doing “Under the Volcano” — about the short-lived AIR studio on Montserrat in the Caribbean — is better than solid: The state-of-the-art facility, built by the Beatles producer George Martin, was in the immediate vicinity of the Soufrière Hills volcano.

Sure, it was supposedly dormant, but it wasn’t always. Sting notes that the volcanic ash from prior eruptions made the ground on the island unusually fertile and lush.

Martin’s desire to create an ideal environment for musicians is touching. Although a certain patrician colonialism did seem inherent in the idea. Jimmy Buffett relates how he and his helpmates were flummoxed by the slow service at a local bar, and how he solved the issue by buying the place. Buffett seems to think it’s a charming story.

Fortunately, Earth, Wind & Fire shows up for a session, and the director, Gracie Otto, switches the film’s perspective to the Montserrat residents who worked at the studio and their interactions with various stars of what became the MTV era.

Filmed separately, the three members of the Police relate how the environment could both exacerbate and ameliorate tensions between the musicians during recording sessions. Almost 40 years later, it’s hilarious to see Stewart Copeland speak of Sting with still-fresh feelings of exasperation, irritation and admiration. Fans of Elton John will find the manic work ethic he applied to the album “Too Low for Zero” fascinating.

It wasn’t the volcano but a hurricane in the late-80s that killed the dream. The volcano did spew a few years later, further devastating the island. Martin, to his credit, sponsored charity concerts to aid in the island’s rehabilitation.

Under the Volcano
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 36 minutes. Rent or buy on Amazon, Apple TV and other streaming platforms and pay TV operators.

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