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In ‘Shangri-La’ Rick Rubin’s Genius Gets A Spiritual Shrug

For over three decades, Rick Rubin has been a fabled figure in popular music – and he looks the part.

Coiffed like a Stoic philosopher or a traditional representation of the Judeo-Christian god with a nimbus of wispy hair and a chest-length beard, eyes often shielded behind sunglasses, Rubin presents a legendary character: a Jewish kid from Long Island who started a record label from his NYU dorm room and managed to court the top hip-hop artists of the 1980s, including acts like Public Enemy, LL Cool J and the Beastie Boys.

The Def Jam Recordings founder would go on to work in every genre, producing the work of Johnny Cash, Black Sabbath and indie darlings like Lana Del Rey from a bucolic Malibu studio known as “Shangri-La.” How Rubin came to be a musical sage and tastemaker should be the subject of a revelatory profile in instinct and business acumen mixed in with some puffy mysticism. Alas, Showtime’s new four-part docuseries “Shangri-La” strains to keep the mystery alive, and effectively presents this sonic emperor as having no clothes save for his favored shorts and t-shirts and, as is his wont, no shoes or socks to speak of.

Judging by the first two installments, the filmmakers, Jeff Malmberg and Morgan Neville (Neville directed the first couple and Malmberg, who directed the second chunk, edited them), know that Shangri-La itself has a history that worthy of further study and seem to want to make two films at once. What may be stopping them from a pure profile of the place is that venue had been committed to film once before as The Band’s hangout in Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Waltz” (1978), clips of which are shown throughout “Shangri-La.”

Rubin seems a willing conservator and custodian of the hallowed ground. While he stripped the working spaces to a meticulous white minimalism for his visiting artists, he keeps reminders of a past including a stone planted by The Band – and scrawled with their name – in 1976 and records connected to former residents Mr. Ed and Elvis.

We learn in the first episode of the documentary that Rubin has an archivist on staff who is charged – incredibly – with finding a connection between what appears to be a quite old Sanskrit text and the music Rubin is currently working on. (The archivist later shows us a personal artifact, an album recorded by Rubin’s great-uncle, the cantor Yossele Rosenblatt, who had a beard like Rubin’s.)

If this seems a bit quackish, it is but an aperitif to the series’ larger presentation. Rendered in a gauzy, Brigadoon-y picture quality, Neville and Malmberg show young Rubin – a child actor in a washed-out cotton candy swirl of beard and thinning hair – wigging out over the Beatles’s “Paul is Dead” conspiracy theory. Later we see him played by an older actor, as a college student who never removes his shades and apes his heavy Long Island accent.

We are treated to pulsing, instructional video animations of an inner ear. Filmmaker David Lynch stares down the barrel of the camera as rolling waves and dilating close-ups of irises and neurons surge behind him and tells the viewer, apropos of nothing, that “negativity, stress and anxieties, tension, anger, fear all these things squeeze the tube through which ideas flow.”

Ducklings are shown diving from trees to demonstrate – what exactly? Taking a leap of faith?

This while author Seth Godin puts forth such deeply-drawn wisdom as: “[Y]ou can try to be attached and the grasping keeps you from doing your best because you can’t grasp and do your best at something else because your hands are over here.… One of the Magic potions at Shangri-La is that you’re helping people detach from that so that they can do their best because now their hands are free.” And “‘Creativity is not the idea of spackling a wall that’s smoother than a nanometer.” Huh?

Rubin chimes in with his own aphorisms that, on the slightest interrogation, show their sophistic roots. Of course, we’re still treated to them in the way of title cards, notably: “The artist may not always be the maker. It may be the person who sees the piece and recognizes the art in it.” Very Dada.

All the while the artists, writers and David Blaine visiting Shangri-La issue vague praise about Rubin’s “allure” or, in the case of singer Kate Tempest, tout his production style.

“He can see this thing that he wants to guide out of you, he has this kind of vision for it but he can’t explain it,” Tempest says. “He can only say ‘that’s not quite right.’”

Rubin maintains that he has “no skill set” but is simply “intuitive.”

If you want to know why Rubin is such a success, it may, as he says, come down to something as arbitrary and undramatic as having a good ear for music. Over its first two hours, the series flounders to make something more of a simple formula. The result is a byzantine take on a man who preaches minimalism. But don’t worry, it’s all part of that hedge maze on the compound that Neville uses as a visual motif. We’re lost in a labyrinth of insufferable creative angst.

The celebrity cameos and splices of pop culture past can’t disguise what is most interesting about the episodes’ subject – how easily Rubin made a name simply by being in the right place at the right time and taking a risk most suburban white kids wouldn’t by entering black spaces and earning artists’s trust. He is, like the elderly sea comber in the opening credits, simply finding the treasure that might already be there and giving it daylight.

Even the recreations of Rubin’s time with the Beastie Boys and Public Enemy and his contemporary catch ups with artists like Mike D and Chuck D don’t capture the alchemy of his relationships that, while essential to his career, he claims to be indifferent to.

“My goal would be able to produce an artist and have it be their best and never meet them or speak to them,” Rubin says at one point, gazing off to the surf on a cliff side.

Rubin appears at this juncture to mainly be a curator and keeper of an artists’ retreat, his involvement in albums consisting of listening and making simple suggestions or telling rapper Lil Yachty that sometimes albums take a while to hit. This may be what producers do – it may also be why they are so seldom given the solo film treatment.

As Rubin says, after suggesting some guy named Francis and the Lights sing the last part of a phrase in an execrable falsetto: “I’m often surprised by the stuff that happens in the things that I say — I don’t feel like I know anything and I almost feel like maybe that’s part of the secret starting from a place of really not knowing,”

Hopefully the next two episodes will be more edifying, but I wouldn’t bank on it.

PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture fellow. He can be reached at [email protected].

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