Under the Volcano: The AIR Studios Montserrat Story

Sir George Martin at AIR Studios Montserrat. © Martyn Goddard.

Under the Volcano is a very intimate documentary that tells the story of Sir George Martin’s AIR Studios Montserrat and the surroundings.

If you’re fan of The Beatles, you know the name Sir George Martin. He’s the man who produced the four lads from Liverpool. What you might not know is that he later started up a recording studio on Montserrat. It just so happens that said studio was build under the shadow of a volcano. Maybe not the best place to build a state-of-the-art recording studio but oh, well. A number of musicians traveled to this small island to record there because of its intimate settings. They wouldn’t have to worry about fans surrounding them whenever they were in public because the island’s residents didn’t care. If you were a cricket player, they’d be all over you! It seems to weird to think of it now but musicians could just go about their day with no worries. How incredible is that?

Unfortunately, Martin’s studio didn’t last all that long–only a ten year period 1979-89. The ending came about because of natural disasters much in the same way that Jurassic World’s destruction did after the chaos ensued. First, there was Hurricane Hugo in 1989. The hurricane left 90% homeless, killing ten, injuring 89, and over $250 million in damges. And then came 1995 when the volcano erupted after being dormant for four centuries. This was the first in a series of eruptions. Did Martin know that the volcano would erupt and this beautiful studio would one day become inaccessible? The smart thinking is to always assume the risk. And yet, this island played home to musical history. The Police broke up while The Rolling Stones would reunite. Meanwhile, it’s where Sir Paul McCartney went weeks after John Lennon’s assassination.

Martin was a few years post-Beatles breakup when he set out to change it up. He tried a boat but that didn’t seem to work. Finally, he settled on this small island in the Caribbean with a history of its own. This is an island with a strong love of music and was no stranger to the slave trade. Because of this, the island has a strong presence of the Irish culture from which many of its residents also descend from. Montserrat’s culture what we know as Soca music and are able to hear by way of Arrow’s “Hot, Hot, Hot.”

We can look at Under the Volcano as retrieving a time capsule. This film–through archive footage–is able to capture a moment in pop music when things are changing. Digital recording was on the rise during this era. Meanwhile, the studios and their business models were also changing. This was during an era when cassettes were about to give way to CDs. Let’s not forget how their approach to recording an album was also changing.

Because of George Martin’s vision, musicians could escape from the noise in London, LA, and New York. Even the neighboring islands couldn’t offer the peace and mind that Montserrat could. I mean, Stevie Wonder playing in a bar until 4 AM in the morning. Where can you find something like that in the US and England, right? Of course, it wasn’t without its own difficulties in getting set up. The island’s nature meant you couldn’t just travel up a hill and so it’s not easy to install a heavy custom-designed Neve mixing desk. But once things got set up, the musicians started to come–including Sir Paul himself. This led to his Grammy-nominated Tug of War, which included a duet with Stevie Wonder.

I love the interview approach that filmmaker Gracie Otto brings to the documentary. Where she could go for the usual talking ahead sit-down, she opts against doing so. Just like the home videos themselves, we get to see musicians and such featured in interviews that feel just as intimate. My only wish is that they would have had a present-day Paul McCartney interview rather than just the archive footage. But even then, there’s only so much room for everything. A lot of these interviews may start out in person before becoming voiceovers while we see other footage or photos on the screen.

The film may heavily feature archival footage but it’s not an film that just focuses on the archives. There is so much footage featured in the film and I’m wouldn’t be surprised if music fans are just seeing it for the first time. This includes Sir Paul McCartney’s home video footage, The Police’s Andy Summers’s photographs and Stewart Copeland’s Super8 footage. The list honestly goes on and on. This film is only an hour and a half so credit to the filmmakers for weaving it down in the best way possible and still tell an intimate story. There’s no shortage of images that show off the island’s beauty. It’s as if we’re on the island and in the recording studio with them!

Under the Volcano captures a moment in time during this must-watch documentary about the intimate AIR Studios Montserrat recording studio.

DIRECTOR: Gracie Otto
SCREENWRITERS: Cody Greenwood, Gracie Otto, and Ian Shadwell
FEATURING: George Martin, Paul McCartney, Malcolm Atkin, Gerry Beckley, Jimmy Buffett, Justin ‘Hero’ Cassell, Ray Cooper, Stewart Copeland, Neil Dorfsman, Guy Fletcher, Minetta Allen Francis, Roger Glover, Dave Harries, Tony Iommi, Steve Jackson, Davey Johnstone, Chris Kimsey, Mark Knopfler, Ian Little, Francis ‘X’ Lloyd, Giles Martin, Lady Judy Martin, George ‘Tappy’ Morgan, Nigel Olsson, Nick Rhodes, Desmond Riley, Yve Robinson, John Silcott, Mike Stavrou, Sting, Andy Summers, Danny Sweeney, Chris Thomas, Midge Ure, Verdine White, Rose Willock

Universal Pictures Content Group released Under the Volcano on Digital/VOD on August 17, 2021.

Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.