You don’t have to be a rap snob to appreciate Rick Rubin, the super producer and Beastie Boys impresario who dreamed up the game-changing Def Jam label as an NYU undergrad in the mid-1980s. Along with shepherding such hip-hop pioneers as Public Enemy, LL Cool J and Run-DMC, he’s helped shape classic albums in every genre, from Slayer’s Reign in Blood to Tom Petty’s Wildflowers to Adele’s 21. And with his flowing white beard, chilled-out vibe and minimalist approach to production, Rubin’s sage-like persona—or, depending on your level of cynicism, personal brand—is as distinctive as that of any icon he’s produced.
His calm pervades Shangri-La, a four-part docuseries that takes its name from his historic Malibu studio and premieres on Showtime July 12, the same day all four episodes will appear on the network’s streaming app. Though it traces 56-year-old Rubin’s lifelong relationship with music, touching on many high points of his career, it’s not a traditional biography. Director Morgan Neville (20 Feet From Stardom, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?) lets each episode meander like a train of thought. Rubin’s past coexists with his present, as old friends and newly discovered artists cycle through Shangri-La. Childhood flashbacks depict him as a little boy, but with the adult man’s balding mane and beard. As the series progresses, other aspects of its subject’s personality—including a hype-man character tied to his love of pro wrestling—emerge and get their own actorly personifications.
Like most larger-than-life figures in pop music, Rubin has his share of skeptics. Artists such as Muse and Jakob Dylan have framed him as a charlatan; critics point to hacky releases by Kid Rock, Josh Groban and latter-day Weezer as proof of his fallibility. Probably because Rubin is an executive producer of the miniseries, these charges go largely unmentioned. Yet Neville finds a way to let him defend himself without appearing embattled. In Shangri-La’s opening scene, we hear the director compare Rubin’s mystical methods of drawing out performers’ most creative selves—rather than imposing his own aesthetic sensibilities—to a hall of mirrors. (The producer enthusiastically agrees.) But we don’t find out what happens when said performer doesn’t have much of an artistic vision for him to reflect.
Yet Neville still manages to illuminate Rubin’s elusive genius. In recording sessions free of technological distractions, we watch him act as an editor and a therapist more than a studio wizard. In fascinating scenes that show him working with young talents like SZA, iLoveMakonnen and the late rapper Mac Miller, he demonstrates a particular knack for asking insightful questions. Unstructured chats with inherently interesting kindred spirits from fellow meditation practitioner David Lynch to Beastie Boy Mike D always go somewhere compelling (though I could’ve done without the series of TED Talk-y conversations with business guru Seth Godin).
What resonates most in Shangri-La—a gentle, summery viewing experience as relaxing as its subject is relaxed—is Rubin’s authenticity, his ability to connect with whoever happens to be in his studio regardless of their age, race or gender. He may not be there for every minute of the process (another common criticism), but when he is in the room, he’s wholly present. And in that respect, he produces by example. “You’re so goddamn free,” the rapper Tyler, the Creator marvels in one scene. Coming from an artist whose entire career has been a series of shocks to the mainstream, that’s high praise indeed.