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Film Review: Sound City
01/25/13 at 09:03 AM by Jonathan Bautts
Sound City was a popular Los Angeles recording studio that rose to prominence in the 70s, sagged a bit in the 80s and went on to enjoy a resurgence in the mid-90s. It was a trashy building that no one was particularly fond of, but inside featured one of the premiere Neve soundboards in the world, which is where the real magic happened. The studio closed in 2011 due to financial difficulties, but thankfully Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl decided to buy the board for his home studio and make a documentary about its storied legacy.

The beginning portion of Sound City focuses on its early roots, those running the studio and the first artists to record there. Fun fact: the board originally cost $75,000, a boatload of money at the time and twice as much as the owner had paid for his house. We see snippets of Neil Young cutting After the Gold Rush, as well as Fleetwood Mac’s self-titled breakthrough, Tom Petty’s Damn the Torpedoes and Rick Springfield’s Working Class Dog. Some of the history can be a bit dry, and being this was years before my time I’m only halfway aware of all the names tossed around, but Grohl keeps things moving at a steady clip so it remains interesting. Plus, it’s pretty cool hearing about how it took Petty and the Heartbreakers 150 takes to get “Refugee” right and how Springfield’s dog was awkwardly in between the legs of his guitarist when they were cutting “Jessie’s Girl.”

Then we get to the 80s, where the digital revolution is starting to materialize with the advent of computers and the compact disc. Sound City begins to struggle as a result and is in danger of closing, but then in 1991 a band few had heard of decided to record an album there that would go on to change the face of music. As we all know, this band was Nirvana and the album turned out to be Nevermind. Being how this is one of my favorite albums from the 90s, this is when things really started to take off for me. Obviously, Grohl was there himself for all this, so we hear firsthand from him about the 16 days Nirvana spent recording the album and anecdotes like how he had to play to a click track for the first time ever on “Lithium.” His enthusiasm is infectious, and he says numerous time he literally owes his career to Sound City and the board. We then move on to see the likes of Rage Against the Machine, Johnny Cash, Queens of the Stone Age and Nine Inch Nails working in the ensuing years at the studio.

But with Pro Tools and the digital age becoming ever more pervasive and cheaper, easier alternatives, Sound City just wasn’t cost effective anymore and it was only a matter of time before it, like most classic recording studios, was forced under. As previously mentioned, Grohl buys the board and then decides to invite several artists over to cut an album at his studio like they used to do back in the day at Sound City. Similarly as in the Foo Fighters documentary Back and Forth, which spent the last half hour focusing on the making of the band’s current album Wasting Light, Grohl spends a half hour on the making of the Sound City Players album, which will be out in March. We see Grohl and the Foos jamming with Stevie Nicks, Springfield, Josh Homme, Trent Reznor and finally Paul McCartney. For fans of the aforementioned, it’s a neat chance to get an up close look at them in action and hashing things out on the spot.

For a first feature, Sound City is a solid accomplishment for Grohl, whose previous directing experience consisted of only a handful of Foo Fighters music videos. It’s competently edited together and well shot, while it’s never immediately obvious the idea originally was envisioned as just a YouTube short. At one point in the film, Grohl broaches the question, “In this age of technology, where you can simulate or manipulate anything, how do we retain that human element? How do we keep music to sound like people?” At its core, this is what he feels the story of Sound City encompasses, and probably why he felt so compelled to turn it into a movie in the first place. It’s unfortunate, then, he never allows himself the opportunity to delve too deeply into the subject, especially as we all know from the Grammys a few years back he is clearly opinionated on the matter. But that’s really a whole other can of worms for a different feature-length documentary, while Sound City turns out to be more content with simply rehashing the good old days. So instead we get to see many respected and well-loved artists reminisce and recount stories of days gone by, and in the end that’s more than entertainment enough.
Tags: film review, sound city
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