Whenever people begin discussing the history of rock and all the cities that played a part in shaping its elaborate history, most never even think to mention Madison, Wisconsin—but they should. Far from the skyline of Chicago, Madison was home to one of the most influential recording studios of the last 30 years, and a new film from director Wendy Schneider ensures its legacy will live on.
The Smart Studios Story tells the story of the legendary Smart Studios recording facility founded by Butch Vig and Steve Marker from birth to death, and in doing so delivers heavy doses of rock nostalgia. It’s an engrossing tale told through interviews with former staff and industry notables, as well as some of the most important musicians of our time, all of whom relied on the studio and the sound it helped create to develop their careers. From Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins to Dave Grohl of Nirvana, Shirley Manson of Garbage, members of L7, Tar Babies and beyond, almost everyone who is considered responsible for shaping the modern rock landscape is featured in this film, and they all have unforgettable stories to share.
The film itself is presented in a very straightforward documentary style, with interviews being intercut with archival footage and scenes from the streets of Madison. It’s a format any fan of documentaries has seen time and time again, but thanks to interesting interviews and an even better soundtrack, the feature never grows stale. This is also due, at least in part, to the search for an understanding of how the studio came to be so important. Many of the 1990s alternative rock albums now considered iconic were created in what is essentially the middle of nowhere, behind brick walls that sat on a quiet street no more than five or 10 miles away from farmland.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of The Smart Studios Story, as well as the journey of Butch Vig himself, is how simply everything began. Butch and his band, Eclipse, wanted to record a 7-inch, but the local music critic completely shut him down. It was in that moment that Butch began pursuing a DIY path, and those efforts eventually lead to the creation of Smart Studios. Had that initial desire to record been met with immediate acceptance, rock as we know it today might not exist, and that is just one of the many revelations the film has to share.
Whether you’re a diehard fan of alternative rock or simply a person who desire to learn more about the history of music, The Smart Studios Story has something for you. Director Wendy Schneider has found a way to concisely and intelligently share one of the biggest stories in modern pop culture without skipping the minute details that make you feel as if you were a fly on the wall for the creation of some of rock’s most iconic albums. Without creating a full-blown biopic about Vig and Marker, I don’t know if anyone could tell the story of Smart Studios any better than how it is presented in this doc, and even then I don’t think you could accomplish everything Schneider does with this film. The Smart Studios Story will go down in history as one of the essential rock ’n’ roll documentaries, and I wouldn’t want it any other way.