In his new documentary, Let There Be Drums!, Justin Kreutzmann takes a deep dive into the world of drummers, exploring the passion of history’s most beloved rhythm-makers and the impact of their drumming careers on their family life. Featuring interviews with a host of A-list drummers including the late Taylor Hawkins (Foo Fighters), Ringo Starr (The Beatles), Stewart Copeland (The Police), John Densmore (The Doors), Chad Smith (Red Hot Chili Peppers), Jon Fishman (Phish), Tré Cool (Green Day), Stephen Perkins (Jane’s Addiction), Adrian Young (No Doubt), and more, plus the children of John Bonham (Led Zeppelin), Keith Moon (The Who), Ginger Baker (Cream), Phil Collins, and Jim Keltner, the film offers new insight into what makes drummers tick, with riveting personal stories and never-before-seen footage.
Growing up as the son of Grateful Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann, who executive produced the film alongside his partner in rhythm, Mickey Hart, Justin had a unique insider perspective on drumming and the music industry. As a child, he went on tour with the Dead so the family could stay together, and he often watched his father from the stage, sitting on the drum riser while the band rehearsed.
“I always thought of drummers as the front guys because I was always sitting in the back, so to me they were always in the front,” Justin told Live For Live Music. “It looked really hard to be Jerry Garcia. It looked hard to be Pete Townshend, doing all that stuff, but as the drummer, you sit back there and you’re in the groove and just do your thing. That always looked like the best seat to have.”
The idea for Let There Be Drums! came as Kreutzmann documented the Grateful Dead’s triumphant 50th anniversary Fare Thee Well shows. “I kind of thought, ‘Oh wouldn’t it be sort of fun to do a little movie just about drums and make it real funny with all the craziness and everybody could tell their favorite drummer jokes?’ It started off really lighthearted and simple. It was never intended to be the 18-part Ken Burns series of the history of percussion, which would be fascinating, but this wasn’t it. This was supposed to be way more personal, and as we got into it I realized the common theme was family and people’s driving ambitions to do stuff.”
As the theme of family emerged, Justin began to explore his own relationship with drums and drumming, turning the camera around to become one of the film’s subjects, rather than its disembodied narrator. “I totally put the blame on Taylor Hawkins,” he said. The Foo Fighters drummer and notorious rock fan sat down with Kreutzmann before tragically passing away in March. “He started the interview asking, ‘So how normal was your home life?’ And we just went for it from there. For every story he told me, I told him one back, and it was interesting because I wasn’t just sort of a nameless face, I had some good rock and roll stories of my own, so we could kind of trade back and forth and that really informed the way the film came together.”
As one would expect, Justin’s history with the drums started when he was young. He remembers arriving home one day to find a drum set in his bedroom:
“I had my race car bed, I had my bookshelf, I had my stereo with all my Beatles and Rolling Stones records, and I got home one day and I’m pushing the door and I’m like, ‘Why is the door not opening?’ And my dad had gotten a new [kit]—I think it was one of those wood Sonor drum kits, brand new—and he set it up in my room so that you couldn’t get in the room. You had to climb over it to get to the other side of the room. And he was just like, ‘Yeah, if you want me to show you a couple things, I don’t know.’
“And then the funniest part is he starts stealing pieces for his own kit so I get back and the hi-hat was missing and there’d be a floor tom that was gone. I’m like, ‘First of all, you can’t just give the kit and then start taking the pieces you like for your kit.’ But I had already gotten into film at the time so that conversation kind of ended there. But his attitude was always, ‘I don’t want to push you into what you’re doing, but if you want to learn a couple rudiments, I got you.'”
Among the other children of famous drummers featured in the film are Jason Bonham (son of John Bonham), Mandy Moon (daughter of Keith Moon), Kofi Baker (son of Ginger Baker), Nicholas Collins (son of Phil Collins), Eric Keltner (son of Jim Keltner), and Lisa Nelson (daughter of Sandy Nelson). A sentiment they seem to share is voiced by Jason Bonham: “When your dad’s in the band, it’s not that cool,” he says before admitting that he once told his dad, “It’s not like you’re in The Beatles.”
Each drummer’s offspring tells of having to learn how cool their parents are because, “When you don’t know any different it’s just dad.” Jason Bonham explains he didn’t come to that realization until Led Zeppelin broke the Guinness World Record for attendance in 1977, gathering 80,000 fans for a concert in Tampa. “Who’s playing?” he remembers asking his father. “Just us,” was his reply.
Justin said one of the many “emotional surprises” in the film came when Bonham—a seasoned professional drummer in his own right—recounted the last conversation he had with his dad. “I didn’t know that the last conversation they had was his dad tucking him in and saying, ‘You will be a drummer,’ the night before he died. I had no idea about that. So I was just hearing the story looking into his eyes like, ‘Wow.’ And there were a few moments like that, like talking to Mandy Moon about what it was like to live in a house with Keith Moon and just those things that very few people can speak to about what it was like to be in the room with these people when stuff happened or just growing up. When you get a chance to talk to folks that didn’t read about it in a book but actually experienced it, you just get all these nuances and that’s the stuff that was really special to me.”
Another notable John Bonham story comes from Ringo Starr, who claims that every time Led Zeppelin would return from the road, Bonzo would call him from LAX for a ride and then forcibly throw him into his own pool when they arrived at his L.A. home. “He was a big lad,” Ringo says. “I couldn’t stop him so I started to dress for it.”
Though limited to the drum set’s relatively short existence—the instrument did not come into its modern form until Ludwig patented the first bass drum foot pedal in 1909—Let There Be Drums! covers a vast amount of music history, with sections devoted to Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart, John Densmore’s experience playing with Jim Morrison and The Doors, Keith Moon, John Bonham, Stewart Copeland, Ginger Baker, Ringo Starr, Jim Keltner and more. In another segment, Bill Gibson (Huey Lewis & the News) attests to the generational influence of Sandy Nelson, whose 1961 song “Let There Be Drums”, one of the first drum features to place on the pop charts, gave the film its name.
Although Let There Be Drums! does not delve into the technical aspects of drumming, drummers will be excited to hear Stewart Copeland reveal details about the Arabic baladi rhythms he absorbed as a child growing up in the Middle East and later applied to the emerging dub reggae movement with The Police:
I left America when I was two months old to Cairo, Egypt and didn’t get back till I was 18. So musically, when you’re that young, it goes right into your DNA. Cool thing is that decades later there’s this thing called reggae. And in the punk clubs in 1977, it’s all the thing, the only chill form of punk was dub reggae. … And so all the London bands are trying to figure out reggae, a rhythm where there is no one in the important beat. The fulcrum is three—nothing, two, three, four, two, three, four. That’s a whole different cognitive architecture.
Lucky for me, the baladi rhythm, the country Arabic rhythm, the foundation [and] building blocks of all Arabic music [is] based on this duh, duh, duh, three, four, two, three, four, nothing, two, three. So I’ve got this completely comfortable in that zone. And so when Sting started bringing songs in and we’re hearing this cool dub and like, ‘I’d like to get whatever that mojo is, we want to get that into our music somehow.’ It just came really naturally.
The tone of the film is altered slightly by the fact that one of its subjects, Taylor Hawkins, passed away before its release, but the late Foo Fighters drummer saw the finished product, and Justin decided not to make any changes to the version he approved.
“When he passed there was talk about either changing some stuff or adding more Taylor, but I didn’t want it to become the Taylor Hawkins tribute because that’s not why he did this. This is the exact film that I showed to him, nothing was changed. Kind of like when The Kids Are All Right came out and Keith Moon died right before the official release and the director Jeff Stein decided not to change a frame. So, it’s the exact film that was made, it’s just different now because he’s talking about the future and what it’s going to be like and his kids, and so moments that were really happy and joyous in the film now have this whole other thing to them that I really wish they didn’t. I would give anything to make it so that it was back to happy and fun.”
Justin said working with Taylor was enjoyable and low-key. “It was super easy. A mutual friend texted him and he said to come over, so I got to just hang out with him for a few hours and talk music and rock and roll and drumming and drummers, and he either knew or knew of everybody that was in the film, so he’s as big a fan as anybody.”
In one part of his interview, Taylor describes going to see the Grateful Dead and says the band’s spontaneous, improvisational approach inspired him to “take more chances” with Foo Fighters in France three weeks later, resulting in the band’s “best shows in a long time.” He claims he told Dave Grohl that the Dead show “took him to new heights.” “I got it,” he declares, though he denies being a Deadhead per se.
In another scene, Taylor showcases some of the music memorabilia he’s collected over the years. “He was showing us around his studio and I just had to ask him, ‘Hey do you mind if we get a couple closeups?’ And he gave us a guided tour of every poster that was in there and how he got it and who the band was. It was just like hanging out with your music buddy and just talking rock, you know what I mean? No pretension. He was such a sweet guy, and I’m happy that the film is exactly as it was when he saw it because doing anything different wouldn’t have felt genuine to me.”
Taylor was not the only interviewee to pass away during the making of the film. “We’ve lost four,” Justin reminded. “Taylor was the youngest, but Jerry Allison just passed away from Buddy Holly and the Crickets, Charles Connor from Little Richard, and Sandy Nelson, Mr. ‘Let There Be Drums’.”
Whether you’re a drummer, a Deadhead, a music fan, or just a person trying to balance family and work, Let There Be Drums! has something for everyone. Watch the film now via Apple TV, Amazon Prime Video, and in select theaters.
Let There Be Drums! – Official Trailer