★★★★ Sound City's first two minutes has more slider shots than most films incorporate throughout their entire running time. We follow an engineer into a studio, watch the equipment being powered on and see director Dave Grohl, frontman for the Foo Fighters, sit down behind the microphone and begin to play guitar. And though the sliders are pretty distracting, the scene is a nice way to introduce music into the film. And once Grohl begins to play, the sound of music never goes away.
Of course, music is a vital part of the story. Sound City is a famous analog recording studio in California that recorded too many great albums to name here. But you'll recognize the artists. From Tom Petty to Nine Inch Nails, REO Speedwagon to Rage Against the Machine, and even Johnny Cash and Vincent Price, just to name a few.
The history of the studio is recreated through old black and white photographs, home video footage and new interviews. The film's edit style is a little too manic for me, and at times the music feels oppressive.
The centerpiece of Sound City is the gigantic Neve console. “It’s like a tank,” says Neil Young, “It’s like the center of the spaceship.” The film has a lot to say about analog versus digital recording techniques and artists weigh in on the good and bad sides of both formats. It’s said that with digital you lose that indescribable human element. As Grohl puts it, it’s lost that, 'I can do that too' feeling.
As we get into the technology of the Neve board there’s an interview scene where we see Grohl reacting to the answers being given and he looks completely lost. It’s played for laughs and there are even subtitles of what Grohl is thinking. Perhaps it’s a way to tell the audience, "we could go much deeper into the tech, but we won’t," but it’s the only moment where the film is actively trying to be funny, and it just doesn’t work.
I did enjoy the degree to which the film cares about the technological aspects of the music industry. There's much talk about drum machines, digital synthesizers, Pro Tools and Auto-Tune. But the film doesn't get bogged down in the details. When you're talking about music, you have to talk with the artists.
Though the film touches on dozens of artists who recorded at Sound City, it focuses on just a few. Fleetwood Mac is the first and there’s a lot of talk about the band’s history with the studio as well as the unique drum sound that comes out of Sound City. Apparently no one acoustically designed the studio, in fact, Sound City was a Vox Amplifier factory in the 1960’s. As with a lot of the story, we’re told it was just “luck and magic.”
Recording tracks in an analog studio presents its own set of challenges. It's said there are, “No frills, no effects, no place to hide.” Tom Petty says, “You’re trying to catch lightning in a bottle.” We spend time with Petty, Rick Springfield and others until Sound City closes its doors.
The story of Sound City is interesting enough, but the film's last act contains the most interesting piece. Nirvana's Nevermind was recorded at Sound City. And it's the success of that album that helped to reinvigorate the dying analog studio in the new digital world. About Nevermind it's said, “You could hear the sweat in the tracks.” But sweaty tracks aren't enough to keep the studio alive forever, and Sound City eventually shut down. But not before Grohl bought the Neve console and installed it in his own studio, Studio 606.
It’s there that he invites Sound City alumni to record a new album along with the Foo Fighters on the old console. Stevie Nix is first and the recording scene with her is excellent as we audibly get to enjoy the sound of the tape spinning up and down as they redo takes.
Then Paul McCartney shows up. Watching the band work with him is really interesting and being a fly on the wall for the recording session is wonderful. As we’re told, “You don’t know what’s going to happen, you just hit record and keep your fingers crossed.”
This final act is exactly what the Snoop Dogg documentary, Reincarnated, was missing. Here we see people actively working on their music, perfecting their craft in the studio. The creativity and artistry is on display, and we come to appreciate not only the musicians, but the technology that helps them along the way.