‘Sound City’ Review
Foo Fighters frontman and former Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl makes his directorial debut with ‘Sound City,’ a documentary about the origins and evolution of the famed music studio and the musicians who recorded there.
‘Sound City’ is a love letter to a recording studio that shaped the lives and careers of so many of the musicians who entered this historic building. Former studio managers, engineers, producers like Rick Rubin and Butch Vig, and musicians like Trent Reznor, Stevie Nicks, Josh Homme, Tom Petty and many more gather to recount memories and tell stories of how they came to enter the studio and record some of the biggest hits in pop music. The doc tracks the history of the studio and its many ups and downs, from the formation of Fleetwood Mac to the recording of Nirvana’s “Nevermind,” with musicians like Rick Springfield joining with the likes of studio founders Tom Skeeter and Joe Gottfried to reminisce about the good times and the bad.
Part of what makes Sound City so special is that it houses one of only four Neve consoles — handmade, specialty sound boards crafted by Rupert Neve — in the world, but it goes beyond that to the history of the studio, which started out as a dingy, lower-tier building with shaggy brown carpeting and an aesthetic that calls to mind forgotten basements of the ’70s.
The documentary feels like nostalgia porn for musicians — as if Dave Grohl just got a bunch of his friends and peers together to talk about the good ol’ days and their fond memories of recording at Sound City. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but at times it feels almost like we’re trying to break in to some exclusive clique — one where the members are friendly and welcoming, sure, but sometimes when they talk they’re doing so in a way that calls to mind someone trying to explain an inside joke. A good documentary will make you feel included in an experience, as if you were right there in that era, that place, or with that person. ‘Sound City’ isn’t a bad documentary, but it never quite makes you feel like you’re being transported back in time; it’s people telling you about a story rather than Grohl creating a narrative, and so it sort of reads like a really expensive episode of VH1′s ‘Behind the Music.’ And that becomes even more evident when the film veers off to give you capsule histories of famous bands like Fleetwood Mac, or edits together a string of photos of the people being discussed at the moment.
At other times, the doc is informative — a sequence on “the drum sound” illuminates the proper set-up for recording percussion, the base element for most tracks, while another portion of the film is dedicated to delightfully exploring how the employees of the studio (many of them women) worked their way up from being errand-runners and secretaries over the years to being managers and producers. One of the more interesting pieces of the film covers the advent of the CD and digital music, and how it changed the landscape of music, much like the VHS — and later, the DVD — did for movies. Trent Reznor and others speak of ProTools, and how people mixing music on computers are missing out on crucial experiences. Though Reznor himself uses ProTools (and quite well, actually), even he concedes that there’s nothing quite like recording in the studio with analog equipment, which makes music feel and sound more tangible.
‘Sound City’ isn’t entirely informative, though; instead, the film is split between the first, largely educational half, and the second half, in which Grohl and mega-producer Butch Vig put together an all-star line-up of musicians to record with Grohl for the film’s soundtrack, including a reunion with former Nirvana bandmates Krist Novoselic and Pat Smear. But the great white whale is Paul McCartney, whom Grohl tries to convince to travel to his studio, where Grohl has purchased and relocated the legendary Neve board in the hopes that McCartney will record with them.
Grohl makes some classic first-time filmmaking mistakes by being perhaps a little too self-indulgent, but one can forgive that inclination based on his passion for and knowledge of the subject matter. The amateur director uses tilt-shift almost erratically in the opening sequence, but films recording equipment in the studio in a way only a musician could. There’s an intimacy to his perspective that a director unfamiliar with this environment couldn’t quite translate. Unfortunately, he quickly dispenses with this approach in favor of a more typical music documentary, and while there’s an abundance of information and stories to be told, ‘Sound City’ at times becomes almost as idle as its aging idols.
‘Sound City’ is available now OnDemand.