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Revisit A Time When Madison Rocked The Music World At CIMMFest Today

By Joel Wicklund in Arts & Entertainment on Apr 13, 2016 2:29PM

Killdozer performing. (Photo courtesy of Coney Island Studios, LLC.)

Appearances from members of wildly successful bands like Nirvana, The Smashing Pumpkins and Garbage may spark interest in The Smart Studios Story, but what makes this documentary about the famed Madison, Wisconsin recording hub so entertaining is its regional, communal flavor. The movie captures how the studio became a creative haven for all kinds of Midwestern acts that flirted with fame, never came close to it or never even pursued it.

The opening night film for this year's CIMMfest, The Smart Studios Story charts the studio's rise from humble beginnings. Initially, it was the extension of the recording hobbies of founders Butch Vig and Steve Marker. Vig would eventually become one of the most successful producers in the business, sitting behind the board for hit albums by the Pumpkins, Sonic Youth, Soul Asylum, Foo Fighters and other major acts. And, of course, he has Nirvana's landmark Nevermind on his resume. He and Marker would also later form Garbage.

But the movie is at its most engaging recounting the time before the spotlight found them. From the early '80s through the early '90s, Wisconsin-bred acts like Spooner (featuring Vig, Marker and fellow future Garbage member Duke Erikson), Killdozer and Die Kreuzen were the backbone of the studio, winning devoted followings through live gigs and records made at Smart.

Those early years are shown as rough (the studio's first home is described by Vig as looking like a crack house) but joyous. Vig and Marker were the center of an extended family of musicians, studio employees and volunteers. Recording sessions would last hours longer than their scheduled time slots and involved equally large quantities of passion and beer.

Butch Vig. (Courtesy of Coney Island Studios, LLC.)

As there isn't much footage of recording sessions, the movie relies on a mix of archival materials (performance clips, concert flyers and photos) to spice up what is mainly a "talking heads" documentary. Fortunately, the heads doing the talking are interesting ones. In addition to Vig and Marker, interview subjects include Dave Grohl (Nirvana/Foo Fighters), Billy Corgan (Smashing Pumpkins), Shirley Manson (Garbage), Chris Walla (Death Cab for Cutie) and Donita Sparks (L7).

The notion that success changes everything may be a cliché, but many veterans of the Smart scene, including Vig and Marker, do acknowledge that the level of camaraderie wasn't quite the same as the studio became a more professional enterprise. Ultimately though, Smart's demise (it closed in 2010) seems mostly due to its founders being too busy to mind the store. Vig was more in demand as a producer at other studios in other cities, while both he and Marker spent more time on the road as Garbage became popular.

Beyond a few anecdotes about creative differences, no one seems to have anything really bad to say about Smart Studios—which raises a question of objectivity. Vig and Marker are credited as Executive Producers on the film and director-cinematographer-editor Wendy Schneider worked at Smart for 18 years. The film is obviously a love letter to their mutual past. But that doesn't make it any less valuable.

Like Hype! (1996), about the explosion of the Seattle rock scene, and the less-polished Salad Days (2014), which details the Washington, D.C. punk movement of the '80s, The Smart Studios Story illuminates an underground music culture that wove its influence into the mainstream. Smart Studios wasn't a record label—like Sun Records, Motown, or other regional recording enterprises that became world renowned—but the documentary makes a strong case that it's far more than a footnote in rock history.

The Smart Studios Story.
Directed by Wendy Schneider. 90 mins. No MPAA rating.

Plays Wednesday, April 13, 7:30 p.m. at The Music Box Theatre as part of CIMMfest. Butch Vig, Steve Marker and Wendy Schneider will participate in a Q&A following the film. For ticket information and After Party concert details, click here.