Towards the end of Dave Grohl’s directorial debut, the rock documentary Sound City, drummer Mick Fleetwood warns us about “the downside” to all the technological advances that have so changed the face of music production: That they might lead a person into “thinking that ‘I can do this all on my own.’”
“Yes, you can do this all on your own,” Fleetwood quickly concedes. “But you’ll be a much happier human being to do it with other human beings. And I can guarantee you that.”
Sound City is at its best whenever it takes this tone – Which it does most of the time. Those of us who feared (like I did) that the film might come across as an ode to diamond-encrusted buggy whips, can breathe easy.
That’s not to say that Grohl and his interview subjects – the likes of Tom Petty, Paul McCartney, Rick Rubin – don’t pine for increasingly impractical analog technologies that have been largely supplanted over the years. Or that they don’t sometimes look down their noses on the digital tools that have come to dominate music production. They certainly do both, from time to time.
But when they do, it’s largely because they’re out to promote the values that these outmoded technologies tend to reinforce: Practice, preparation, dedication, collaborative spontaneity and that in-the-moment experience of making inspiring music with inspired peers.
Despite its steadfast and somewhat conservative perspective on how music should be made, the tone of Sound City remains one of aspiration, inspiration and affection – never derision or condemnation. Even Neil Young who, now nearing his 70s, can be something of a crotchet when it comes to audio technology, is made to seem accepting of other ways of working – even as he makes a curiously unstudied remark about the birth of the CD.
His is not the only small technical lapse that may raise eyebrows among sound engineers in the know. Immediately after extolling the virtues of the amazing ambient character of Sound City’s live room and how good it is for drums, the film cuts to making a big deal out of the drum sounds on Fleetwood Mack’s 1975 release by way of example. Although it’s a damn cool sound, they are in fact, some of the deadest, driest drum tracks imaginable, and could have probably been made just about anywhere, given enough baffling.
But these questionable moments don’t detract much from the movie at all. As much as Sound City pivots around changes in technology, it never obsesses over the geeky, techy details. For the most part, that’s actually a good thing. In addition to keeping the pace light and forward-moving, it allows the film a potential to reach beyond the market of a few tens of thousands of working musicians, engineers, and recording enthusiasts.
A brief cameo by that legendary designer of recording consoles, Rupert Neve, sets the tone in that department: Director Dave Grohl hams it up for the camera, nodding and smiling as if dumbstruck while Rupert Neve talks about his namesake console, which the film centers around. Grohl’s feigned ignorance is likely to comfort lay audiences as he makes pretend that basic audio terms like “microphone amplifier” and “crosstalk” are the very height of techno-babble.
This kind of self-effacing affability is part of what makes Grohl so likeable throughout Sound City. As much as he tries to make the studio and its vintage recording console the stars of the movie, it’s the personalities of the subjects that shine through. Perhaps his own, most of all.
Grohl can be both silly and sincere, sometimes at once. He has a cadence that borders on that of the ADD-surfer dude, and he seems unpretentious and un-self-serious, displaying the kind of understated confidence that comes along with knowing that you’re really damn good at playing the drums.
You don’t have to like the Foo Fighters to like Dave Grohl. And that’s a good thing, because as much as this is a story about a studio and a way of working, it’s also a personal story for Grohl. Nirvana’s Nevermind, the album that changed his life and the lives of so many others, was recorded there. And that story is tied up with the story of Sound City.
Although Grohl likes to wax poetic about how great the Sound City Neve console sounds; about how magical their room was, and about how their way was the best way to make real records, apparently the rest of the world didn’t think so for long stretches at a time. The truth is that the crusty old studio with the carpet on the walls was on the verge of going under more than once before it finally closed for business in 2011.
It had been on the verge of bankruptcy just before the Nevermind sessions came through. And it wasn’t until after that record shot past Michael Jackson and Michael Bolton on the way to #1 that the studio was hopping again.
Grohl romanticizes that console and that space, but in reality, it was the fact that great music was recorded within its walls that put the studio on the map to begin with. After a long dark period, the fact that great music was recorded there once again is what made it a hot spot once again. None of the gear had really changed.
The truth is that compared to the power of a great record, a good room and a great console have almost no power at all. Sound City’s many successes and failures are clear testament to that.
Although that point may have been lost on Dave Grohl at times, he does a surprisingly good job as both director and emcee. Paul Crowder’s editing and pacing are commendable as well.
The one place where the film gets just a touch self-indulgent is toward the very end when Grohl – rather than taking on the quixotic mission of trying to save Sound City Studios – simply buys their old console for himself and installs it in what’s essentially an oversized home studio. Here, Grohl collaborates with a string of A-list rock stars, to mixed results.
Some of the pairings are more awesome in theory than they could ever be in real life, such as when Sir Paul McCartney and Nirvana bassist Krist Noveselic swing by to join Grohl in writing a new rockish romp, reminiscent of Helter Skelter, right on the spot.
A jam session with Trent Reznor of NIN and Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age leaves the two seeming just a bit pompous compared to the down-to-earth Grohl, but the result is a downright memorable instrumental track, plus a few mixed words in defense of both digital tools and formal music training.
For me, the standout musical moment was an unexpected one: Lee Ving of Fear sings a bewildering punk rock tune at breakneck speed that sounds just a little bit like Nomeansno. Out of the entire movie, it’s probably the one song that Kurt Cobain would have really, really liked.
Even this whole section, the spottiest in the movie, is still a good watch. The only thing that really doesn’t work in the entire film is – ironically enough – the sound mix.