This review was originally published on January 18, 2013…
Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl’s documentary feature Sound City tells the story of the Sound City Studios in Van Nuys, California. A disheveled music studio with shag carpet on the walls, Sound City’s place in music history is not only cemented by the number of blockbuster albums recorded there, not the least of which include Nirvana’s Nevermind, but also the little known stories of the bands and people who came in and out. No matter what music you enjoy, Sound City was involved in some way, as acts from the aforementioned Nirvana to Fleetwood Mac, Rick Springfield, Fear, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Barry Manilow, Ratt, Queens of the Stone Age, Rage Against the Machine, Neil Young and Nine Inch Nails recorded there.
The main draws of Sound City wound up being the custom Neve 8028 mixing console at the studio’s heart (which cost more than co-owner Tom Skeeter’s new house at the time), and the building’s penchant for capturing uniquely endearing drum sounds. It also had a lasting impact on the personal lives of many of the musicians who recorded there. If not for Sound City, for example, Lindsay Buckingham and Stevie Nicks may’ve never joined up with Fleetwood Mac and Rick Springfield might not have found a wife, among other things.
The story of Sound City is also one of highs and lows, as after every boom of acts recording popular albums passed, along came a crushing trough of declining business. When things were looking bleak in the ’70s, Fleetwood Mac came to the rescue. In the ’90s, Nirvana’s Nevermind saved the day. Now, when digital recording has all but eliminated the analog option, and the recording equipment in Sound City found itself being sold piecemeal before closing its doors in 2011, it was Dave Grohl’s turn to come back and rescue what he could. In this case, that means by making this documentary and purchasing the famous Neve console.
Which brings us to Grohl’s presence in the film, and his voice behind it. This isn’t a case of a musical gearhead talking over an audience, or someone trying to gain more exposure via a vanity project; you can sense Grohl’s fascination with all things Sound City, and reverence not just for the studio but for the musicians who recorded there. In that way, Grohl isn’t some detached rock star we can’t relate to, he’s a music fan standing in for us and getting stories and history he’s uniquely able to coax out of people. His appreciation is infectious, and you can’t help but get caught up in it.
If there’s a moment that may cause issue for potential audiences, it’s the tonal gear shift a little beyond the midpoint, when the film stops being about Sound City’s past and more about Sound City’s, or more specifically the Neve console’s, present and future. Grohl purchases the console and moves it to his Studio 606 to record an album with a mix of all the different musicians we’ve been seeing throughout the film. It’s not uninteresting, quite the opposite, but it is a different mood; it’s not a case of reflective history and anecdotes anymore, now we’re seeing acts of creation, as they happen, in the present.
But that’s not a bad thing. I found as much to enjoy in the recording sequences as I did in the historical record, mainly because now I was seeing a first-hand example of the musicians, and console, at work. And the creative energy on screen comes through; it’s hard to see Dave Grohl, Trent Reznor and Josh Homme work out a song together and not share excitement. Likewise, when Krist Novoselic is showing his amazement at recording with Sir Paul McCartney, I’m equally pumped that I’m watching a Nirvana and a Beatle write a new song together.
So in the end, Sound City has something for everyone. Whether you’re a music gearhead, a fan of the bands and albums recorded at Sound City, someone who appreciates the creative process behind writing and recording songs or even just someone who digs well-made documentaries, the film has it all. We know Dave Grohl is a great drummer and an incredible frontman; now we know he’s a great documentary filmmaker too.
Great music documentaries inform you on history, help you find a new appreciation, and often leave you wanting to re-experience the music that you just heard. This does all that and more, by bringing a brand new stock of songs to the table and letting us be there for their conception. Sound City isn’t just a tale of music history, but also a document of an analog past reborn and enduring in a digital present.