“It’s not about me at all,” says Rick Rubin — renowned record producer, hip-hop pioneer, possessor of one of the world’s truly magnificent celebrity beards — at the very beginning of Shangri-La, Showtime’s four-part docuseries that premieres tonight and is … well, ostensibly about him. He’s talking to the project’s co-director, Morgan Neville; the Won’t You Be My Neighbor? filmmaker is asking Rubin about what the focus of the series should be. The subject sort of demurs, deflects, dodges the invitation to step into the spotlight. He mentions the artists, the studio in Malibu in which he works his magic, the creative urge that the space inspires. He speaks in what almost sounds like Zen koans.
Then Neville, sounding like he’s inching towards irritation, or maybe ready to throw in the towel, finally stumbles across inspiration. Trying to mount a portrait of someone whose goal is to help artists hear their inner voices, he suggests, is like a hall of mirrors; he’s “looking at a reflection of a reflection.” “Yeah!,” replies Rubin, ecstatic. “It’s a great way to look at it.” You can almost picture the human sounding board nodding in approval, eyes closed, in a lotus position, levitating above his couch.
In less than a minute, this doc has already presented itself in miniature, not to mention giving us a meta-peek behind the scenes of a series filled with numerous peerings into projects already in progress. Rubin is a bona fide name in the industry, a much-sought-after set of ears. You have him to thank for the early Beastie Boys, LL Cool J, Public Enemy and/or Slayer tunes currently pinging through your skull. He’s helped everybody from Johnny Cash to Jay-Z do some of their best work. If anyone deserves the stem-to-stern profile treatment, it’s him. Except this is not conducive to how Rick works. He’s more like a sagelike midwife to musical muses, the guy who’s patiently standing still so his clients can get out of their own way. The man is all about being open to the “eureka” moment when it comes your way. So why not focus on that, he says. And as with a lot of suggestions the sonic guru makes, it’s mysteriously 100-percent on point.
Shangri-La does give you a history of Rubin from kid to icon, with the man himself recounting landmark moments and epiphanies while either a child in a bald cap and Santa Claus beard (no, really), a stubbly teenager in wraparound shades, a ripped pro-wrestler type and a marionette act out his memories. You also get a lesson on the legacy of the Shangri-La property itself, a venerable studio that takes its name from a 1937 Frank Capra movie about a lost paradise and house the Band and Dylan for a short while. (The shooting-pool and kitchen shit-talking sequences in The Last Waltz? That’s the place.) The camera roams through its bone-white hallways and open-window recording rooms, past the shelves in the music library where an archivist holds court, across the grounds outside and into the mobile home where the occasional isolated bass track gets laid down.
And most importantly, you get a singular clinic on the creative process, with Rubin acting as a sort of ringmaster and cheerleader during sessions for everyone from the Avett Brothers to ILoveMakonnen, SZA to Santana. Yes, the pearls of wisdom he drops can sometimes veer close to New Age hippie frippery. Yes, it is worth those eye-rolls to be a voyeur to Rubin giving life advice to Lil Yachty, trading old-school war stories with both Mike D. and Chuck D., getting Flea to open up about how the death of Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist Hillel Slovak affected the band dynamic and watching Rick listen to the Ramones’ “stripped” version of End of the Century. We’d suffer a million bumper-sticker platitudes just to observe Ezra Koenig play a section of “This Life” and then deem his work “Shrek,” his shorthand for “this sounds like a Smash Mouth song.”
How Neville, Malmberg and their team manage to make all of this cohere together over four free-form episodes is slightly unbelievable. Somehow, the drifting from recording sessions to vigorous Rubin head-nodding to old film clips to community-college theater department recreations of Krush Groove to pro-wrestling footage — Rick is a huge fan — to existential musings makes you feel like you’re inside the producer’s head. One cut, which segues from the music video to Johnny Cash’s devastating cover of “Hurt” to Mac Miller noodling away on a piano, is a gut-punch — there’s a lot of regret and grief and loss in that single juxtaposition. By the final fade-out, Shangri-La leaves you both enlightened and a little woozy. It’s not about who Rubin is. It’s about what he’s created, and if you posit to him that that is the same thing, he’ll simply give you an enigmatic smile. You figured that out on your own, didn’t you, he’ll say. And then he’ll turn and listen to the music.