Sunday, August 18, 2013

Review: 'Sound City'

The great thing about being Dave Grohl, is that you can do just about anything you want. You can make a documentary about an important but not-so-well known recording studio, you can jam with Tom Petty and Paul McCartney. It’s good to be Grohl.

The former Nirvana drummer and current Foo Fighters frontman undertook the former, directing this year's Sound City, a film that mostly tells the story of the studio in Van Nuys, CA. of that name, where countless major albums from Fleetwood Mac’s Fleetwood Mac, to Nirvana’s debut Nevermind were recorded. Over the years the studio saw explosions in popularity (mainly after the success of both those albums, decades apart), and severe dips in business. It also saw the rise of digital recording, something that the doc ultimately attributes to the death of the studio.

Grohl is a good guide into the lovably scuzzy studio’s history, but the film overall suffers from poor organization. It starts with backstory, moves into a techie explanation of the Neve board– the studio’s extra expensive, magical, customized recording console, then into a section about drums, with scattered spotlights on Fleetwood Mac, Rick Springfield (and his relationship with studio owner Joe Gottfried), general managers, runners, along with tangents on the evolution of the role of the producer, and other anecdotes relating to acts like Petty or Nirvana.

The film never figures out what made Sound City, Sound City. Grohl, on numerous occasions– at least four– says that he wouldn’t be where he is without the Neve board. So, is the board the studio? It was undoubtedly integral, but if so, why talk about the best spot to record or the spirit of the people that worked there? It would seem Sound City is the aggregate of all these things, but it doesn't always come out that way. This thread with the board, like a few others, is haphazardly picked up throughout the 147 minute runtime.

Another prominent theme, as mentioned, is the rise of digital. Pro Tools is largely painted as the villain. Of the many major talking head interviews, Neil Young (who recorded After the Gold Rush at Sound City) best champions the idea that digital sucks. Footage of an engineer painstakingly splicing tape with a razor on a splicing bar, juxtaposed with him essentially doing the same thing on a computer with a highlight and delete, sure makes a statement– but the simplification of digital is misleading. As democratizing as newer recording software can be, just try to sit at a Pro Tools rig and blindly make it work to satisfaction.

Beside the elitism that comes through on some interviews, like discussing how some people have no business in music, another anti-digital argument that Sound City makes is that bedroom recording setups have all but eliminated interaction between musicians. Sure, we’re well familiar with the image of a kid in his room with a laptop writing and recording every part himself, but it’s also a modern cliche. Seemingly, Grohl tries to use this argument as a justification for the last half hour or so of the film, which centers around Grohl buying the Neve board, moving it to his own studio, and recording with many of the artists– Stevie Nicks, Fear’s Lee Ving, Trent Reznor (who offers some defense of digital as a creative tool versus shortcut)– who were associated with the studio. He says the project was done in an effort to “keep music sounding like people.” Then he drops the McCartney bomb, and it really feels like Grohl wants to show off the cool thing he got to do, recording a song with Paul and the remnants of Nirvana. Still through all this, the legacy of the studio isn’t fully articulated.

However, Sound City is interesting to watch partly because Grohl has the power necessary to get interviews with heavy weights like Rick Rubin, Neil Young, Mick Fleetwood, hell– even Barry Manilow. He also brings a Grohl-ian humor, like in his interview with board designer and ultra-intelligent engineer Rupert Neve which is subtitled with lines like “He must know I’m a high school drop-out.” And then Foo Fighters drummer Taylor Hawkins periodically pops up shirtless, gleefully playing his drums. There’s just something goofy and funny about it. Also funny is Paul McCartney collapsing into Grohl’s lap. You have to figure that screenshot is framed somewhere.

In any case, it’s worth seeing, whether you agree with some of what it posits or not. Sound City, even if not expertly organized, is an important story for music nerds. And if music nerdom is not your bag, take advantage of the documentary as a rare meeting of some great musical minds. Plus, it’s fun, an essential element Grohl would not have you forget.

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