In another benevolent look at an aging legend, Morgan Neville’s latest documentary boils down Rick Rubin’s atypical path to greatness into a universal message of inspiration, using the variety of musicians who visit his mythic Southern California recording studio as avenues into the record producer’s guiding ethos, as well as a resource of widely applicable words for the audience at home. Tyler the Creator, Ezra Koenig, Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, LL Cool J, as well as non-musicians like David Lynch, David Blaine, and Jerrod Carmichael all stop by “Shangri-La” to shoot the shit with the bearded, barefoot Rubin, his long white hair and white-walled retreat lending added calm to the therapeutic vibes — he’s there to help with whatever’s blocking their creativity, and Neville’s four-part docuseries is here to do the same for viewers.
The biopic elements of “Shangri-La” are pretty fun, too. Though the first hour establishes the history of Shangri-La itself — including its role in Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Waltz,” and the famous bands who’ve wandered the Malibu estate’s calming white halls — Neville starts to build Rubin’s life along with his favored lodging. First, there are flashbacks to Rubin as a small child, with the recreations plopping a bald and bearded child actor in front of a TV or record player as various voices discuss his upbringing. Later, Neville uses an older (still bearded) actor to play a college-aged Rubin, who founded Def Jam in his dorm room.
Talking heads aren’t just put in front of a blank background, but rather cast in front of active scenes. Rubin’s old roommate talks to the audience about the producer’s odd hours and regular habits as multiple Rubins walk around behind him, staging the busy lifestyle of a musichead trying to make work for himself. Later, cutaways to an animated Rick (who is drawn in front of our eyes, starting with the beard) and a puppet of Rubin animate stories about his love of wrestling, research, and discovery.
All of this is in addition to the core of the docuseries: how Rubin exists within Shangri-La itself. Various subjects explain how the stripped bare setting (there’s no art on the walls, no decorations in any of the rooms) and remote setting (deep in the hills of Malibu, CA) provide a greater focus on the music they’re there to create. Rubin pops in and out of recording sessions as needed, sitting cross-legged and bobbing along with a track or offering counsel to musicians who haven’t been able to create anything yet.
Watching Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig fret over a track that sounds a little too much like Smash Mouth’s “‘Shrek’ song” offers enticing access to the private world where great music is made, but Rubin’s response, tone, and general demeanor cut right to the point, for Koenig and anyone else watching. Rubin is driven by change and self-actualization: He relies on meditation to push himself beyond what he thought possible before, explaining how it helped him transition away from the popular alt rock of his youth discover breakout bands like the Beastie Boys, which gravitated more toward the burgeoning hip-hop scene. But he applies it beyond music. His conversations with David Blaine show how the magician was able to hold his breath for 15 minutes and why Rubin submerges himself in ice water baths for similarly long, perilous stints.
Rubin tries to bring a piece of this thinking to everyone he talks to, and the way Neville cuts in conversations with the musicians themselves alternate between breakthrough moments for these individuals and general, more wide-ranging advice for anyone listening. (LL Cool J later chats with Rick are particularly intriguing on the latter level, as the rapper-turned-actor seems very agreeable with Rubin’s argument for creative evolution, despite the star’s long stint on the repetitive-by-design “NCIS: Los Angeles.”)
After four hours, not only does the Showtime documentary provide insight on the central subject, but why his way of thinking could benefit a muddled, repetitive, and stagnant artistic community. Rubin sees the music landscape (and beyond) as becoming increasingly homogenized, and the only way to escape is to reject the manipulative advice of those influenced by sales, success, and industry standards. This is a fitting message for a crowded television landscape, as well as a film industry poised to be overrun by a corporate monopoly — making “Shangri-La” a timely release close to “The Lion King.”
For anyone without access to the actual seaside retreat and its sage host, this feels like a little sliver of the experience, sliced off for all to savor. So if anyone out there is in need of a guiding light, “Shangri-La” just might flip the switch.
“Shangri-La” premieres Friday, July 12 at 9 p.m. ET on Showtime.