‘Let There Be Drums’ Director on How Taylor Hawkins Transformed the Documentary
Justin Kreutzmann set out to make a standard documentary about drummers. After all, having Grateful Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann as his dad meant growing up on the road surrounded by rock stars and hippies. But once he started interviewing musicians for the film, named after the iconic Sandy Nelson composition “Let There Be Drums,” Kreutzmann stumbled upon something much more personal, leading him to “begrudgingly” come out from behind the camera and talk about his own upbringing.
“Let There Be Drums” is not a Grateful Dead documentary, and Kreutzmann says “you don’t have to be obsessed with drumming” to enjoy it. Through archival footage, interviews with musicians and their loved ones, and, of course, music, the film uses drumming as a vehicle to tell a more universal story — about community, resilience and family.
Speaking with Variety ahead of the doc’s release, Kreutzmann detailed the filmmaking process behind “Let There Be Drums” and discussed how Taylor Hawkins transformed the film’s perspective.
After you decide to make a documentary about drummers, where did you start? Who was your first ask?
Growing up, when your dad’s a drummer in a band like Grateful Dead, you end up being around a lot of drummers, and people ask you about it a lot. So you have a lot of funny drummer stories — stories you tell at a party. So I wanted to do a really simple, funny drummer stories — hotel smashing type stories. But once we got into it, it grew into a film with a lot more depth than my original intention. I didn’t want to do a 900-part history of drums, that would be way too daunting. So I started with my friends — [The Who drummer Keith Moon’s daughter] Mandy Moon was the first ask and first interview we did. And she really set the tone.
Speaking of Mandy, a lot of the film focuses on the family members of drummers, and the collateral effects of the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. Why did you choose to focus on that?
The film told me what it wanted to be. When I pitched it to folks, it definitely wasn’t about the kids of famous father drummers. But when we were doing it, the real emotional stuff came from the families. So we made a film that will interest drummers, but because of the common theme of family, everybody can relate to it. You don’t have to be obsessed with drumming. And I fully blame Taylor Hawkins for this. During his interview, he asked me, “How stable did your home life seem?” That’s when I was like, “Well, people need to know the guy behind the camera.” And that’s why I begrudgingly put myself on screen.
So Taylor’s off-the-cuff question totally transformed the documentary?
That was the shift. He was just asking me a question, not for the documentary. But that’s when the lightbulb went on. I had my 20 questions for each drummer, but they also had questions for me. So we traded stories. People wanted to know what the Grateful Dead world was like, what Jerry Garcia was like. So it became much more conversational and personal. Of course, when you’re doing interviews and are talking about stuff they haven’t been asked a million times, you get a lot more interest and energy. So that’s why it really worked. Everybody wanted to tell me their Grateful Dead story.
Stewart Copeland is so enthusiastic in this film. What was it like sitting in his studio and hearing him gush about other drummers?
Getting Stewart Copeland was a dream come true. He was so energetic. You can sit there and ask him about anything. All the footage you see in the doc from the Police reunion in London is actually from his son, Jordan Copeland. We got some really good home movies. I didn’t use this in the film, but I told Stewart the story of how my dad used to borrow my bootleg Police live cassettes and listen to them before Grateful Dead shows. The Police was the only modern music you would hear at a Grateful Dead party. There was no other band they’d listen to that was Top 10 radio.
Taylor Hawkins says toward the end of the film that he could never imagine not getting together with Dave Grohl and that it will be hard to play Foo Fighters songs when they are 70, but they’ll just slow them down a bit. In the wake of his tragic and unexpected death this year, how does it make you feel watching that scene back now?
It’s crushing. Originally when you watch that, he’s talking in the context of bands like the Grateful Dead and musicians from the ‘60s who are still playing together. Now, the tone of all that has changed just by circumstances. Hearing Taylor talk about his family and his kids watching him play — all those moments that are joyful and fun — now have this real sadness to them. This film was done before Taylor died. This was the cut we sent him. We didn’t add or remove anything because it wouldn’t have felt real. I want people to know that this was the movie Taylor saw.
“Let There Be Drums” is available on demand starting Oct. 28.
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