Did the digital invasion destroy true creativity? Has the music industry signed its own death warrant by embracing the ease of fixing it all in the computer? A new film directed by Dave Grohl seeks to answer those questions by telling the story of Sound City, a studio you might not know but, guaranteed, you have records in your collection created there. Grohl directs this documentary, looking at the history, rise, fall and eventual end of Sound City, all the while keeping the digital vs. analog argument involved.
Here’s a little background on Sound City. Opened in 1969 in Van Nuys California, Sound City was housed in a rough area near an underpass and within inhaling distance of a Budweiser plant. To look at it, one would think it was more involved in the manufacturing of meth than music. Inside though, inside the structure of Sound City created magic for dozens of artists. From the natural killer drum sound to the instillation of one of four Neve recording consoles in the world, Sound City became a prime example of "never judge a book by its cover."
Grohl approaches Sound City not like a fan boy — he leaves that for his interview spots — but as a seasoned professional telling an absorbing story. No stone is left unturned in this film and yet it never becomes messy or convoluted. Grohl paces the film perfectly, moving between the studio history and the stories bands weave about their time there.
Recording nerds will be excited by the lengthy section on the Neve recording console and how it found its way to Sound City. The board’s history is interesting even to laymen, especially how central it was to the recording of so many iconic albums. On the flipside, the music nerds will be glued to the individual recording stories. Listening to Mick Fleetwood, Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks unfold the way a chance meeting led to the musical juggernaut of Fleetwood Mac is great fun, even if you don’t care about the band itself.
Some of the more compelling stories come from the most unlikely places. Rick Springfield, often written off as an eighties pop footnote, has one of the most impactful stories in the film. Springfield became an integral part of Sound City in his early career. After rising to fame, Springfield broke his alliance with the studio, which created severe fallout. Grohl allows the members of Sound City and Springfield to tell the story, but never vilifies either side. It’s more a sad story that feeds into the rocky waters sailed by Sound City over the years.
No matter how many musical giants weave amazing stories, Sound City is always about Sound City. Ups and down, warts and all, the passion Grohl has for the place is clear and he uses that passion to make sure we are always aware that this is about the studio that revolutionized sound recording and gave us a staggering list of incredible albums.
That love is shared with every interview in the movie and we’re talking about an impressive roster. Lindsey Buckingham, Stevie Nicks, Rick Springfield, Tom Petty, Neil Young, Josh Homme, Lee Ving, Trent Reznor, Rick Rubin, Chris Goss, Ratt, Grammy winning producer Nick Raskulinecz, members of REO Speedwagon, Dio, the list goes on and on. All of the participants check their egos at the door and talk with purity of heart about their love for Sound City.
Lurking just behind the Sound City love is the argument over digital versus analog, a.k.a. the ability to do everything in the computer as opposed to live rocking out and the human element. Again, Grohl plays it very smart. Even with his personal interview, which lands squarely on the side of the non-digital recording process, he never allows the film itself to take sides. With so many interviews standing against the digital world, Grohl turns to the eloquent and intelligent Trent Reznor to tell the other side. Watching Reznor apply digital technology to the creative process turns the knee-jerk reaction of “digital is bad” on its ear.
Another nod in Sound City has to go to editor Paul Crowder, who takes hundreds of hours of footage and connects them perfectly. This isn’t shot after shot or interview after interview, there is a story arc here. Writer Mark Monroe lays the groundwork, but it’s Crowder’s editing skills, combined with Grohl’s direction, that makes Sound City a movie. We rise and fall with the studio as it prospers, falls, and prospers again. When the final nail falls in the coffin of Sound City, we are so emotionally involved that we feel it. That is the sign of a great documentary.
If there is an Achilles Heel to Sound City it’s the last half hour. During filming, Grohl decided to create an album using the musicians from the movie. The last thirty minutes is spent in Grohl’s private studio as he and a slew of artists write and produce new songs. I understand the full circle appeal. It was recording the Nirvana album on the Neve board at Sound City that made Dave Grohl a household name and now Grohl, who purchased the Neve board when Sound City closed, is using said board to record with his musical peers and inspirations, but the section goes on too long. The film would have been better served with a few simple shots of the recording during the final credits so Sound City ended on an upbeat. The way it ends now, it comes off as slightly self-indulgent.
Quibbles aside, Sound City is a wonderful film about a time in rock 'n' roll where greatness was created in the most unlikely place. Perhaps the true message here is that, whether analog or digital, it’s people who make the magic and the human spirit that creates true and everlasting art.