When a volcano stopped the music

Music producer Sir George Martin poolside at AIR Studios, Montserrat. Image: film still/supplied.

Famed music producer Sir George Martin built a state-of-the-art recording facility on the lush slopes of Montserrat island, hosting the biggest names and making iconic albums of the ‘80s. Director Gracie Otto has captured the magic of the time in her new documentary, Under the Volcano. She spoke with arts and entertainment editor Rita Bratovich.

“Like, who doesn’t want to go to the Caribbean?” laughs Sydney director Gracie Otto as she recalls her emphatic ‘yes’ when asked if she’d like to make the film Under the Volcano.

“It was such a magical place, I’d never been to the Caribbean before, so that was definitely an incentive.”

It was producer Cody Greenwood, who got Otto involved in the project. Greenwood had seen Otto’s documentary, The Last Impresario (2013), about larger-than-life British theatre and film producer, Michael White, and felt it captured the tone she was after.  

Gracie Otto, director of Under the Volcano. Image: supplied.

For Otto, it was an opportunity to again make the kind of documentary she enjoys making. 

“I really love getting 40 different people’s opinion on something and I really love interviewing people and learning a lot. You can learn a lot from an hour interviewing them,” says Otto. 

Greenwood herself has a personal connection to Montserrat. Her mother, an artist, had lived on Montserrat when Greenwood was a child. The producer has fond memories of the island, where she had befriended many of the locals and met some of the VIP musicians who came to record at AIR Studios. 

Montserrat is a small, mountainous island in the West Indies region of the Caribbean. Its rich, verdant nature is attributable to the fertile volcanic soil. In 1989, Hurricane Hugo swept through the Caribbean, felling trees, razing buildings, saturating everything porous.

Then, in 1995, after lying dormant for centuries, Montserrat’s Soufrière Hills volcano unexpectedly erupted, devastating much of the island and burying the capital, Plymouth, in ash and mud. After the eruption, the population dropped from 13,000 to less than 5,000 as hordes migrated to safer turf. There are large exclusion zones around the island as the volcano is still considered unstable.

(Above) AIR Studios, Montserrat in its heyday. (Below) How it looks today. Images: supplied.

When they filmed in Montserrat, Otto and the crew went to areas that had not been visited by anyone in over twenty years. Police had to escort them. 

“You had to park with your cars facing out in case the volcano erupted, so that was pretty scary,” says Otto. 

The crew was allowed access to the derelict building that was once a recording oasis. AIR Studios launched in 1979 with an impressive Neve mixing console, large glass windows framing the tropical vista outside, a pool, a bar, a turquoise bay nearby and tranquility pervading the scene. It was the pride and paradise of former Beatles producer Sir George Martin and hosted the who’s who of the pop music scene in the1980s. 

What Otto visited was a mouldy, dilapidated ruin with vines slowly engulfing it. 

“It was amazing and cinematic but I thought, ‘Fuck, I wish we were here when Sting was here. Like, I wish we were going to a party tonight on the roof there or having a great dinner party,’” reflects Otto. 

Under the Volcano is a compilation of archival footage and interviews with locals and staff who were there at the time, as well as famed recording artists Sting, Stewart Copeland, Andy Summers (The Police); Midge Ure (Ultravox); Mark Knopfler (Dire Straits); Nick Rhodes (Duran Duran); and George Martin’s son, Giles, to name just a few. 

(Clockwise from top left) Nick Rhodes from Duran Duran; Verdine White from Earth, Wind & Fire; Mark Knopfler from Dire Straits; The Police in the studio at Montserrat. Images: supplied.

It also includes archival videos of Paul McCartney, Elton John, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards – in fact, you could play ‘spot the ‘80s megastar’.

Getting a hold interviewees of this calibre proved challenging. 

“The thing with celebrities is they either want to do it or they don’t and you just have to wait for the day they wake up and go, ‘Yeah, I’ll give that person an hour of my time,’” says Otto. 

Many artists were on tour or couldn’t remember much or were indecisive. They were also scattered all over the planet which meant clocking up a lot of flying time. 

“It’s a delicate balance and it makes it tough on schedules. Like, we went to London twice in two weeks because we interviewed Nick Rhodes from Duran Duran, then we flew back to Australia and got an email saying Mark Knopfler, who we tried to get for two years, can do it on Wednesday,” explains Otto. 

“We had some crazy things, like we went to interview Roger Glover from Deep Purple and we went to San Francisco and they were performing in this amazing venue and they were like, ‘Oh you can only interview him in the women’s bathroom.’ So that was very uninspiring!”

Otto also recalls hastily hiring a car and driving non-stop overnight from San Francisco Airport (which had been shut down for some reason) to Malibu to interview Jimmy Buffett at 8am. She then had to fly to New York the next day for another interview. 

They were very fortunate to have completed almost all the interviews in 2019, before Covid took hold.

Making Under the Volcano was an enlightening experience for Otto. She admits that until this film she didn’t know much about music in the ‘80s; now she feels like an expert on the subject. 

The film provides candid portraits of people who normally live in the rarefied, sometimes suffocating air of mega-celebrity, being relaxed, being themselves. We get a glimpse of creative genius at work, at vulnerability, at child-like abandon and at masterpieces being made. 

Under the Volcano is one of 12 films nominated for the 2021 Documentary Australia Foundation Award for Australian Documentary. Otto says she is “super pumped” to be nominated. The films will screen as part of this year’s Sydney Film Festival, with the award winner announced on closing night – Sunday, 14 November. 

“I feel like it’s my home ground, the Sydney Film Festival,” says Otto. “My dad took me there when I was, you know, like 14 or something and I was so excited to be there. So it was then great to have a film there.

“It’s got such a long history, that festival, and it’s got an exciting buzz around it. It’s a time of the year when you get to see everyone in the industry. There aren’t many industry events like that.”

Under the Volcano will screen as part of Sydney Film Festival at 6pm Saturday, 6 November, 2022 at Event Cinemas George Street, Sydney, and on demand on Friday, 12 November. For further details and to book tickets, visit https://www.sff.org.au/program/browse/under-the-volcano.

Rita Bratovich is the arts and entertainment editor of the Sydney Sentinel.