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'Shangri-La' review: Fascinating look at enigmatic music producer Rick Rubin

Rick Rubin in SHANGRI-LA on Showtime. (2019)

Rick Rubin in SHANGRI-LA on Showtime. (2019) Photo Credit: SHOWTIME

DOCU-SERIES “Shangri-La”

WHEN | WHERE Premieres Friday at 9 p.m. on Showtime

WHAT IT'S ABOUT Rick Rubin, the legendary producer and music executive who grew up in Long Beach, has cultivated an air of mystery almost as much as he has cultivated young artists. This four-part documentary sets out to tell his story, as well as the story of his studio Shangri-La in Malibu, California, though how clearly that story gets told seems questionable from the start. Director Morgan Neville opens the series with his discussion about the difficulties of telling the story the way Rubin wants. “It’s super-challenging because it’s like a hall of mirrors,” says Neville (“Twenty Feet From Stardom,” "Won't You Be My Neighbor?"). “If you’re reflecting what an artist brings, then I’m looking at a reflection of a reflection.”

“Hall of mirrors is a great way to look at it,” Rubin responds. “Nothing would please me more.”

MY SAY Of course, there are plenty of things that would please fans more. Like, maybe more direct answers. But when dealing with Rubin, you take what you can get. And Rubin certainly offers a lot in the first two episodes. The documentary includes plenty of interviews with those who were recording at Shangri-La recently, including Tyler, The Creator, Vampire Weekend, The Avett Brothers, and Mark Ronson. It also includes chats with Rubin’s pals from his early days, including Manhasset’s LL Cool J and Roosevelt’s Chuck D, as well as Beastie Boys’ Mike D.

Everyone, aside from Rubin, is forthcoming with their stories, as well as their artistic processes. And many of them, especially the younger artists like Lil Yachty and Tyler, The Creator, talk of how unusual dealing with him is. But direct knowledge of Rubin is usually handled in dramatized flashbacks —usually handled by a kid with long flowing gray hair and bushy beard like Rubin’s — or comes from those who work with him. However, it is telling that Rubin chose Shangri-La as his home base, the studio that was The Band’s headquarters in “The Last Waltz” and one that had decades of somewhat mysterious music history before that.

The documentary does offer some answers about that. Elvis Presley may or not have lived there. Bob Dylan may or may not have lived in a teepee in the backyard. But Mr. Ed definitely lived in the stables when he wasn’t filming his sitcom.

And we do get to hear plenty of new music, especially from British rapper Kate Tempest and rapper DRAM, and we get a chance to see Rubin’s method as a producer, at times, like when he questions Francis and The Lights’ singer Francis Starlite into using different parts of his voice to improve a song.

“I have no skillset,” Rubin explains. “I am only intuitive.”

Adele, the Dixie Chicks, the late Johnny Cash, and dozens of other artists may disagree about Rubin’s lack of skills. However, if he wants to keep those skills secret, that’s up to him. “Shangri-La” offers a look into the private world Rubin has created. It may be limited, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t fascinating.

BOTTOM LINE An interesting documentary about the enigmatic Rick Rubin that raises more questions than it answers.

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