You had me at Dave Grohl. I didn’t know anything about Sound City when I saw it for the first time, which is just as well, because it was delightful to watch it unfold. All I knew was that it was directed by Dave Grohl, who is basically the president of Rock and Roll these days. If ever there is an awards ceremony, induction ceremony, charity fundraiser, or all-star band, Dave Grohl seems to be there. And rightly so (for me). He’s a great drummer, with genuine street cred earned in Nirvana. But it turns out that he’s also a fantastic singer-songwriter and guitar player who launched the Foo Fighters in the aftermath of Nirvana’s demise.
So what is Sound City all about? Well Sound City is a legendary recording studio in LA where Nirvana recorded Nevermind. Oh yeah, every other legendary recording by every other legendary artist was recorded there too. With the music business in the state that it is, Sound City is going under. I assumed that this was going to be your standard run-of-the-mill rags-to-riches-to-rags behind-the-music story of the studio and the music that was made there.
I was wrong. Although the first half of the movie is this kind of story, it starts to take a turn. A lot of time is spent talking about the mystical ‘Neve’ console. It turns out, Dave Grohl has purchased the console (being president has its perks). Dave had the idea to re-assemble the console in his home studio and invite some of the Sound City artists to break it in with him. This is where things start to get interesting.
We’re treated to half a dozen vignettes of these musicians hanging out with Dave and his friends in his home studio, creating new music on the Neve console. People like Stevie Nicks, Rick Springfield, Lee Ving, Jim Keltner, Josh Homme, Trent Reznor, and some guy named Paul McCartney.
Not all of the music from these segments were winners. For example, I like the Stevie Nicks song, but found the lyrics unlistenable. But I find it endlessly fascinating watching the creative process of these musicians writing and arranging new music together. Mostly we see the arranging. We never see the ‘blank page’ moment, but rather the middle-to-end game where parts have been written and they are being assembled and edited on the fly. I could watch this forever.
I find it especially interesting watching these ‘hard’ rockers talk about ephemeral creative concepts that make good music great. It seems out of keeping with their rough exterior personas, but at the end of the day, all of these people are gifted musicians. and have achieved success by mastering their craft.
There’s also a significant recurring theme on the evils of electronic music production, and that music made under constraints (like recording to tape) is inherently better. I felt that all of this was misplaced. People are welcome to their opinions, but don’t blame the (Pro) tools, blame the people who misuse them.
Dave feels like he works better when recording to tape because he’s better when he’s working without a net, but I think the net is all in his head.
Movie: 3/4 stars
Music: 3.5/4 stars