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SXSW Review: Sound City

Dave Grohl’s Sound City boasts “an infectious appreciation for rock and roll that lingers past the somewhat self-satisfied finale.”

Sound City Credit Sami Ansari

For the record, yes, I am the guy who just compared Big Ass Spider! to Die Hard (makes sense in context), and I am also the guy who wants you to calm down about how great Sound City is. Foo Fighters frontman and former Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl has tried his hand at documentary filmmaking, and the results are good. Really, really good. For a long time, Sound City has all the heart and soul we can ask from a documentary. For a long, long time, that is, until the end, when it gets a little indulgent and nearly subverts its own themes of underdog heroism and well-intentioned nostalgia for a simpler, and yet technically more complicated, period of pop music production. “Really, really good,” I said. Just not “great.”

Sound City Studios was the facility where Nirvana produced their seminal rock album “Nevermind.” It’s also where Rick Springield recorded “Jessie’s Girl.” Fleetwood Mac recorded their first album with Stevie Nicks within its walls. Dio screamed “Holy Diver” into its microphone. Weezer’s best album, “Pinkerton,” traveled through Sound City’s mixing board and into our hearts. The list goes on so long that the very prospect of interviewing everyone involved with Sound City Studios seems like an impossible task, but Dave Grohl did it, and Sound City rides high on their enthusiasm and anecdotes for most of the running time. It helps that they were willing to contribute dozens and dozens of their influential pop hits to the amazing soundtrack, presumably “for a song.”

For a first feature, Sound City seems like a fairly straightforward one. This is the manner of documentary where, for the most part, the filmmaker just has to plop a camera down in front of an interview subject and let them talk about something they love. An amazing number of iconic musicians are scattered throughout the film, revealing emotional stories, fascinating trivia and unbridled enthusiasm for their craft and the studio that, until its closing in 2011, was an indelible component of popular music for over 40 years. Grohl could have coasted very easily on their charms (and his own, since he’s such an engaging, affable presence), and almost does so until the final act, where Sound City switches things up a bit and quite probably shouldn’t have.

Dave Grohl purchased a custom Neve 8028 Console from Sound City Studios when they closed and created a recording studio of his own using that equipment, which, we are assured, is one of the best mixing boards in the world. This purchase is common knowledge amongst music enthusiasts and anyone following Sound City’s production, and it's a fitting, sweet ending to the otherwise melancholy Sound City Studios story. Its influence was felt and will live on through one of the many artists who credits the studio, at least partially, with their own overwhelming success. Dave Grohl even recorded a new album on the Neve 8028 Console, collaborating with Stevie Nicks, Trent Reznor, Paul McCartney and many more legendary artists besides. For your sake, I hope that part sounds fascinating, because Sound City makes you watch damn near all of it right when the movie seems like it should have ended already.

It’s fun to watch Dave Grohl hero worship McCartney and work with Trent Reznor, whose musical and producing styles don’t run entirely in tandem with one another, but Sound City spends so much time watching Grohl futz around with his friends that the first two-thirds of the movie, about the actual Sound City Studio, fades away into memory, the opposite of Sound City's stated intention. The production of those classic, unforgettable albums comes across like a prelude to Grohl’s vanity project, and although Grohl justifies this transition as an ode to artistic collaboration, the songs being produced by “Sound City 2.0” just aren’t as memorable as their predecessors; at least, not this first wave of them. Using these songs as a triumphant conclusion to Sound City is a little like a Beatles documentary that ends with the production of “Love.” Arguably it's a decent tribute, but surely that’s not supposed to be the point.

With a little tidying, the conclusion of Sound City could have come and gone, making a point about preserving the human aspect of music production without losing its original focus on Sound City Studios and the many personalities that passed through its doors. That meaning survives, but it’s muddled too much by the end of Sound City for the documentary to feel like a truly exceptional film. Still, Sound City is a mighty fine one, with an infectious appreciation for rock and roll that lingers past the somewhat self-satisfied finale and makes you want to start your own musical career right after the credits roll. I’ve got my band’s name picked out already: it’s called “Kill Your Darlings.” 

7-5

Photo Credit: Sami Ansari

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William Bibbiani is the editor of CraveOnline's Film Channel, co-host of The B-Movies Podcast, co-star of The Trailer Hitch, and the writer of The Test of Time. Follow him on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.

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