Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Movie Review: Sound City

Sound City
Directed by:  David Grohl.
Written by: Mark Monroe.

Last year, I was a big admirer of the documentary Side by Side, which looked at the changeover from film to digital in the world of movies. David Grohl’s directorial debut Sound City is similar to that film – except about the music industry. True, Grohl’s documentary is more nostalgic than Side by Side was – which split itself between proponents of film and digital, looking at the pros and cons of each – while Grohl’s film is certainly more on the side of the old way of recording music. Other than Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, there really isn’t much of a voice given to the people who like to use computers to manipulate their music – and even he preaches that having a real musical background (i.e. knowing how to play actual instruments) is important as a foundation to any musical creation.

Sound City is named after the old, seemingly rundown studio in Van Nuys, that operated between the late 1960s and 2011, when time finally caught up, and it was shut down. Some legendary albums were recorded there – and Grohl has interviews with everyone from Lars Ulrich to Tom Petty to Rick Springfield to Barry Manilow to Rage Against the Machine to Neil Young who all recorded some of their music there. The big draw – in the 1970s – was the fact that Sound City had a Neve mixing board. Grohel features an interview with Neve himself – the engineer who created the boarding, which is so technical that he – and probably most of the audience – gets lost. All Grohl cares about is that the board makes the music sound better.

The interviews are nostalgic in the extreme, as all the artists look back at the days when they recorded there. Most had the same intial reaction – the place was a dump. But even though it didn’t look like much, the sound they got from the Neve board, and the recording studio itself was great. For a while, Sound City seemed to be on top of the world, with everyone seeking them out to record their albums there. Then, in the late 1980s, it became possible to record and mix your music with computers. Sound City wasn’t going to switch over – and slowly the clients stopped coming. It looked like the studio would have to close. And then, for reasons even Grohl cannot explain, Nirvana decided to record Nevermind there. Nevermind became one of the best selling records of all time, and was the quintessential grudge album of the 1990s. Then everyone wanted to record where Nirvana recorded – and once again, they were on top. But then, slowly and surely, the same thing happened all over again – and Sound City was eventually forced to close their doors.

The first hour of Sound City is an extremely entertaining history of Sound City – I suppose it was more entertaining to me, since I am a fan of many of the artists interviewed, so if this kind of rock music isn’t your thing (you have no taste in music!) it may not be as entertaining enlightening. The last half hour or so is less informative – as it essentially documents Grohel’s tribute album to Sound City, featuring many of the artists recording new songs in Grohl’s home studio – using that same Neve mixing board that he purchased when Sound City closed. The music itself is fine – not as good as the artists best work – but it does get repetitive after a while. But impressively for a first time documentary maker, Grohl seems to understand pacing very well – his documentary is clear eyed, fast moving and entertaining – and he shows himself to be a gifted interviewer.

I do wish the documentary asked a few harder questions of its subjects though – including Grohl himself. If the artists loved Sound City so much, why did they stop recording there? No mention is made of Nirvana’s follow-up album In Utero being recorded there – or any Foo Fighters records – so one must assume they weren’t. And what about all the other bands and producers who sing the studio’s prasies over the course of the documentary? One assumes that had they kept using the place, it would still be open. So why didn’t they?

But that’s a minor quibble with what overall is a very good documentary. Something is being lost – both in movies and in music – with so much of the work being done by computers. While I don’t think being a luddite is the appropriate response, we should at least be examining the consequences of relying too heavily on technology, and losing the human touch. Sound City shows us the reasons why we should care about a studio like Sound City – now lost forever.

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