‘Sound City’ – Movie Review
For anyone who grew up wanting to make music during the first four and a half decades of the rock era, it’s hard to overestimate the importance and mystique of the recording studio.
Sure, the amateur musician could invest in varying degrees of home equipment, but if you really wanted to get serious work done, you needed to save up enough dough to book yourself some time in a professional establishment with qualified personnel.
And it really was an investment, too — particularly during rock’s glory days, when acts recorded to expensive two-inch tape. If you were an independent act, you needed to make every second count while the studio meter was running — but if you were talented and hard-working, and lucky enough to hire a good producer and engineers, the results could be magical…or at least feel that way to a kid who’d dreamed of hearing his own music come together, note by note, through those giant studio speakers.
What’s sort of funny about all this is that the studios themselves often had a decidedly non-magical look and feel; as often as not, they tended to be located in business parks that bordered on the seedy, and because they were owned, operated, and patronized by musicians rather than homemakers, housekeeping was often something of a lost art. Such was the case with Sound City, the Van Nuys, Calif. studio given the rockumentary treatment in Dave Grohl‘s new film of the same name; although it served as the birthplace of a long list of critically and/or commercially important albums (including Neil Young‘s ‘After the Gold Rush,’ Fleetwood Mac‘s ‘Rumours,’ and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ ‘Damn the Torpedoes’), it really wasn’t much to look at.
For Grohl, who tracked ‘Nevermind’ with Nirvana at the studio in May and June of 1991, Sound City represented the beginning of his career, so it’s only fitting that for a portion of ‘Sound City’s’ 108-minute running time, the movie serves as a nostalgic look back at some of the many artists for whom it served as an incubator — from Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks (and, in turn, Fleetwood Mac) to Rick Springfield (who scored his ’80s hits while managed by Sound City owner Joe Gottfried) and, of course, Grohl himself.
These segments offer a ton of legitimately fascinating information and interview segments for anyone who loves a good rock doc, but they aren’t what ‘Sound City’ is all about. While outlining the studio’s many accomplishments, the movie also delves into what really made the place great: The people who worked there, the unique acoustics of the recording space, and the one-of-a-kind Neve console that captured all that music.
The console serves as the focus for a substantial portion of Grohl’s Sound City love — in fact, he bought it after the studio closed its doors as a commercial enterprise in 2011 — and it also provides a useful launchpad into a thoughtful, surprisingly balanced discussion of technology in music. Once at the vanguard of recorded sound, the Neve steadily faded into the rearview for a number of top-selling acts — first in the ’80s, when digital gear became the gold standard (evidenced during the sequence discussing chief engineer Keith Olsen’s defection to build a nearby all-digital studio of his own), and on into the aughts, when anyone with a decent laptop can make a thoroughly professional-sounding recording.
Clearly, Grohl is an analog believer, and his feelings are shared by the majority of the folks interviewed during ‘Sound City’ (perhaps most notably Petty, who talks about visiting Olsen’s studio and viewing its single-fader console with disdain) — but the movie also makes room for digital enthusiasts like Trent Reznor, who helped prove the medium’s capabilities with Nine Inch Nails.
That double-sided look doesn’t temper the sense of loss over Sound City’s sad fate, however — a loss driven home by interviews with the employees who worked there for decades and forged a family whose bonds continue to hold even without the studio walls to prop them up. Just as music consumers have lost their places of worship over the last decade and change, so have the musicians themselves, and that fading sense of place acts as a persistent bittersweet counterweight to all the great music and funny anecdotes that run throughout the movie.
It’s also, in the end, what ‘Sound City’ is really about: The idea that the creative act changes depending on where you are and who you’re with; that just being in the right room with the right people can mean the difference between something good and something extraordinary. Grohl pays tribute to that sense of place in the movie’s final act, rounding up a slew of friends and inspirations (including a handful of Sound City all-stars such as Springfield, Nicks, and Paul McCartney) to make music simply for the joy of it.
As a documentary, ‘Sound City’ may not venture into any new cinematic territory, but that’s about the worst thing you can say about it. Grohl’s affable, enthusiastic public persona provides the perfect fuel for the movie’s warmest, most nostalgic moments — and more importantly, he also proves surprisingly adept at not only identifying the story’s most crucial themes, but organizing them in clear, consistently entertaining fashion. In lesser hands, ‘Sound City’ could have been dry and didactic, or nothing more than an uncritical tribute; instead, it’s one of the sharpest, most affectionate looks at music’s alchemical possibilities that any rock fan could ask for.