(This review originally appeared at Reel Film News on February 15, 2013.)
There’s a lot to like about Dave Grohl. Drummer and musician extraordinaire, he seems to embody music to me; he knows just what to play and when to play it, be it on the drums or as a guitarist or otherwise. You know that when he’s involved with a project, excellence will always be heard. He also has a kind of “Holy crap, I get to do this for a living, so I’m going to make the best of it and enjoy every last minute of it” outlook on life, which makes him endearing and funny. It’s this brio, accompanied by his love of music and how it gets made, that shines through in his first directorial effort, the documentary Sound City. Focusing on the studio where his band Nirvana made the album that changed music forever, he takes us on a 31-year journey through Sound City’s history, meeting up with some of its notable alumni along the way.
In 1970, a studio in Van Nuys, CA opened up for business, aiming to be the studio where labels brought their major acts to make hit records. Until 2011, Sound City served as a musical hotbed for Johnny Cash, Tom Petty, Neil Young, Metallica, Nirvana, Tool, Rage Against the Machine, and a myriad of other popular recording artists. Numerous memorable records were made at Sound City – records you own or you may have heard on the radio. It was THE place to record, and it wasn’t just because of the storied history of the place; they were one of the few places that had an actual working Neve 8028 analog recording console, which made records sound amazing. That board was the reason why Sound City was in constant use until the era of Pro-Tools, which is digital recording software that anyone can use on a computer. It has become the de facto recording process for 99% of the music that you hear on the radio today. Before Pro-Tools, music was recorded to 2-inch tape with analog recording equipment, and Neve consoles were the most sought-after consoles for their fidelity and their dynamic range.
The Neve 8028 at Sound City inspired Dave Grohl to tell its story, from its humble beginnings in 1970 to its reinstallation in Grohl’s private studio. As the drummer for Nirvana, he recorded “Nevermind” through that console, and looking into the studio’s history, he finds others who recorded through it and encourages them to tell their stories. We hear from Fear’s Lee Ving (whom you might recognize as Mr. Boddy from 1985’s Clue), Neil Young, Rick Springfield, Stevie Nicks, Lindsey Buckingham, Rage Against the Machine’s Tim Commerford and Brad Wilk, various studio personnel and others as they tell their stories about recording in an era where the music and the ALBUM mattered the most, not just singles. We’re regaled with these stories in an almost conversational manner, with the easygoing-yet-enthusiastic Grohl behind the camera, coaxing these tales out of these willing and nostalgic participants. Deeply personal stories are shared here, with few skeletons remaining in Sound City’s closet when all is said and done.
Grohl’s structure takes us through the heyday of the recording business until when a place like Sound City couldn’t compete with Pro-Tools. Why pay tens of thousands of dollars when you could pay less than half of that and make something cheap, fast and easy on what amounts to a home computer? A producer mentions the fact that with Pro-Tools, it’s too easy to manipulate incorrect timing or notes and make them perfect; with analog recording, you have to perform at your best all the time, every time. To someone like Grohl, who treasures performance and substance over style, it’s plain to see why calling attention to this board and this way of recording is so important in this era of mediocre pop. His current band, Foo Fighters, recorded their last album “Wasting Light” completely analog, with no computer fixes or digital recording; it’s that work ethic that drives Sound City to not only explain, but to cherish musical excellence.
As a musician (who also recorded on a Neve console in 2000 and 2001), I found Sound City to be one of the best and most entertaining documentaries about the recording process. It’s very interesting to me to see analog recording embraced so fervently, almost making you wish for days when music was more than just a teenybopper face on MTV. Analog recording forced the player to play their best, otherwise risking a substandard recording. All the participants in this movie share Grohl’s love for music, and it’s a love that bleeds all over this film. He not only directs, but we also see him tell his own stories and recording brand new music for “Sound City: Real to Reel”, a tie-in album due out in March. This album is going to feature all manner of former Sound City denizens, from Cheap Trick to Trent Reznor (who’s seen recording with Grohl and Josh Homme), and this movie serves almost as a primer and a making-of for the album. Whether it’s a commercial for the record or not, Sound City is an engaging, fascinating movie that needs to be seen by all.