Ask the average music fan their impression of what life on the road is like for a band on tour. Sold-out arenas with thousands of screaming fans, backstage parties, lavish food spreads, groupies and gleaming tour buses will probably be mentioned. While that might be true for a handful of bands at the top, for the vast majority of musicians, the reality is probably self-financed tours of dingy clubs, traveling long hours crammed into a van, greasy fast food, and, if they are lucky, a few fans who actually know the songs.
Long Way To The Top is a relatively short (run time is just over one hour) documentary by Rob Montague that explores what drives musicians to put up with unbelievable hardships in their quest to have their music heard. With the exception of Phil Collen from Def Leppard, Wes Borland of Limp Bizkit and Weezer’s Scott Shriner, most of the musicians who are interviewed for the film are relatively unknown. In addition to the interviews, Montague chose three bands to follow more extensively: alternative rock group Grizfolk, singer/songwriter David Ramirez and metal band The Sword.
The first part of the documentary is bleak to the point of being depressing. There are talks of money woes (one musician remarks “I couldn’t have even afforded to buy a ticket to see myself play.”) The constant scratch for income means they must go direct from the stage to the merchandise table, without even a minute to unwind from the show. Sanitary conditions may be shaky (when laundry facilities are limited, another musician advises “turn your underwear inside-out.”) The long periods away from home are tough on relationships. And being sick with the flu or even pneumonia means not bed rest, but desperately pulling it together long enough to do the gig.
Just when the documentary seems like a cautionary tale warning any young musician against even considering a career in the music business, the tide slowly turns. Borland speaks about a fan who died when she was crushed during a stampede at a Limp Bizkit concert, an event that deeply affected him to this day. That is immediately followed by a scene where, at a gig in Florida, Ramirez meets a couple who was so inspired by one of his songs that they decided to reaffirm their love for each other by starting a family. Ramirez is shown viewing photos of the newborn baby and he is also very moved. The juxtaposition between those two scenes, one of death and sorrow followed by life and a new beginning, set up the final segment of the film.
Grizfolk, while hardly a household name, have a leg up on the others as they are signed to a major record label, Virgin Records. That means tour support and the cameras follow the band while on tour in Europe. Still, a record label is no guarantee of success, as half-empty concert halls and a broken-down tour bus attest to. However, when Grizfold reaches Milan, Italy, the sour luck changes. There is a scene where a small group of enthusiastic fans are waiting to greet the band, which touches the band members immensely. Later that evening at the concert, the venue is sold out, much to their surprise. Lead vocalist Adam Roth gets emotional on stage as he thanks the fans and actually has to pause for a moment to compose himself as he looks at the sea of cellphone lights being held aloft by the crowd.
In the closing moments, all of the musicians interviewed express similar thoughts on why they put up with all the struggles and obstacles thrown in their way: it’s about getting their passion–their music–heard. Everyone who has been in a band, who is currently in a band, or wants to be in a band needs to watch this ultimately uplifting film.