Posted on Saturday, January 19th, 2013 by Russ Fischer
Sound City was a recording studio outside Los Angeles, and a dump by all accounts. But it housed a dedicated staff and some incredible gear. The hit-machine incarnation of Fleetwood Mac met in those halls, and the 1975 album they recorded at Sound City put the studio on the map. Dozens of great rock records were cut in the studio’s two rooms. Years later, when the shift to digital recording had almost killed the studio, Nirvana showed up to record Nevermind in the big room, and the joint found life again.
Sound City is the first film from Nirvana drummer and Foo Fighters leader Dave Grohl. Grohl takes a shot at crafting a comprehensive history of the studio, but this is really a nostalgic look at a unique part of rock history, loaded with earnest testimonials from the likes of Rick Rubin, Neil Young, and Trent Reznor.
The material is all filtered through Grohl’s own deep fondness for the studio, and tied up as a tidy parable about rock music as an inherently personal means of communication. It tells a unique aspect of rock history from an accessible insider perspective, and features blistering performances that will raise the pulse of any rock and roll fan.
Sound City is a particularly drum-centric account of the workings of a recording studio. (No surprise coming from Grohl, I suppose.) Little is said about setting up and recording guitars or piano, and minor points are made about recording the human voice. But we learn a good bit about capturing the sound of a drum kit on tape, as Grohl and others air the belief that a good drum sound is the most difficult thing to capture, and with it everything else can fall into place.
Factoids about music engineering really aren’t the point, however. The argument develops that a place like Sound City attracted musicians of a certain stripe, and the relationships forged there lasted far beyond any single recording session. The studio facilitated not only great records, but a network of people that led to something more meaningful than any one song or band.
The fallout of the ’80s digital recording boom was that computer-based kits like Pro Tools made studio skills available to anyone who wanted them, budgets shrank and battle-hardened staff had to be let go. Though an evil eye is cast towards those developments, Trent Reznor is included explicitly as an example of a skilled musician who bends technology to his will. There is, however, a scorn for those who use digital tools as a substitute for skills honed in a room with other musicians. And though there is some nodding towards “modern” music, there is little room in Sound City’s philosophy for anything other than a rock group bashing out songs together in a room.
Grohl makes the best of his connections and affability to score interviews with rock luminaries, and the unanimous enthusiasm displayed by the impressive interview roster adds weight to assertions about the studio. But this is clearly the work of an amateur filmmaker, and the film almost always favors warm anecdotes over any deeper information.
In truth all the industry shifts and economic problems faced by Sound City are more complex than the film tackles, and the warm, almost-family vibe of the studio, contrasted by the harsh truth of its ultimate failure, lead me to think there’s still much here that is unsaid. A more skilled filmmaker might have crafted a more comprehensive document, but Grohl’s passion and affection keep the film floating up in a light, fun space. It’s a very entertaining viewing experience, if nothing else.
Sound City is a movie in four acts, and depending on your level of cynicism, the final act can be seen as either Grohl trying to carry some of the studio’s history into the present, or a commercial for the record that Grohl masterminded with participation from various Sound City alumni. When Sound City was on its last legs, the director bought the studio’s famed control console and installed it in his own studio. Recruiting artists such as Reznor, Homme, Stevie Nicks, and Paul McCartney, Grohl organized the creation of an album of new material on which all those participants collaborated.
The film’s final act is an extended document of that recording process, with the creation of a few tracks given full treatment. It’s not quite Goddard capturing the Stones in the act of writing ‘Sympahy For the Devil,’ but I loved watching Grohl, Reznor, and Homme collaborate on a song. The final sequence, with McCartney, is pure and electric. Seeing the 70-year old Beatle dominate a room filled with the surviving Nirvana roster is beautiful.
Sound City may turn into the adventures of Grohl and his famous friends, but when that means we get to see Paul McCartney write a kick-ass rock song I can’t really complain. Seeing the writing process in action also supports the assertion that rock music is a very personal thing that can be shaped by place as much as people.
/Film score: 7.5 out of 10