Sundance ’13 Film Review: Sound City
Watching a movie at a film festival is an altogether completely different experience from checking it out at your local multiplex. First of all, everyone there is an ardent lover of films. They are pumped beyond belief to be able to check out a new film, often one that has never been seen by most of the human populace. Especially at Sundance, where a vast majority of the films have never been screened anywhere in the world, much less the United States. Oftentimes, at bigger festivals, the creators and stars of the film are usually in attendance and will introduce their film and then follow up the screening with a 10-20 minute Q&A. If the creators are magnetic personalities, they can even re-shape the way you think of the movie you just witnessed. Sometimes for the better, sometimes for worse.
Dave Grohl’s world premiere screening of his documentary Sound City had an extra element added into the mix — a buttload of celebrities in attendance. As the hoi polloi streamed in to take their seats at the MARC Theater one could not help but notice that the entire middle section (out of three) was roped off with nice, neat little white placards attached to the theater seats that simply read, “Reserved.” I had literally just screened Ben Wheatley’s excellent serial killer road comedy Sightseers in the exact same theater before and only the first two rows of the middle section had been reserved for that one. This expansive sectioning off could only mean one thing — Dave Grohl was bringing in a few folks.
Among the celebrity musical (and acting) elite present at the Sound City premiere were Rick Nielsen of Cheap Trick, Brad Wilk of Rage Against The Machine and Black Sabbath, Stevie Nicks, John Fogerty, Darryl Hannah, Corey Taylor of Slipknot, the remaining Foo Fighters, Pat Germ and Krist Novoselic of Nirvana, Lee Ving of Fear, and motherfuckin’ Rick Springfield!
Once the oohing and aahing subsided, Dave Grohl came out and gave a brief intro to the film and we were off.
Sound City is a documentary directed by Grohl about the tiny, despicable recording studio of the same name located in the valley of Los Angeles that is also home to some of the most world famous albums ever recorded including Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, Ratt’s Out Of The Cellar, and Nirvana’s Nevermind, amongst literally hundreds of albums you have definitely listened to over and over and over if you are reading this website.
Sound City, the studio, though dingy, dirty, and riddled with cumstains and piss, was revered for two simple reasons — it apparently had Godlike acoustics and a Neve sound board. Grohl, the director, does a good job of explaining through talking head interviews with several of the musicians in attendance at the screening, as well as tons of archival photographs, exactly why the acoustics mattered so much and explained the importance of the Neve. These segments are certainly the most entertaining, especially when Grohl, a high school dropout, places subtitles over his own mug while he is trying to comprehend what scientist and sound board creator Rupert Neve is saying while he describes how he designed the infamous console.
My favorite aspect of Sound City, however, wasn’t the celebrities, but rather the nameless staffers who ran the real studio. Employees such as Paula Salvatore were what made the studio feel like a family. Their highs and lows, followed by inevitable struggles, make the film relatable to the Average Joe. And it does an excellent job of explaining those struggles and how they affected not only the musicians and the employees of Sound City but also the industry as a whole.
Much of Sound City focuses on the transition of recording studios from 2″ tape to digital recording. Grohl has a long-standing reputation as a proponent of tape over digital. I find it a rather hollow argument, as I tend to be a pragmatist not stuck in the past. Anyone who says that electronic musicians are incapable of creating emotional music from the heart has never listened to Plaid or Boards of Canada. It’s a straw man argument that does get knocked down, rather adequately, by Nine Inch Nails leader Trent Reznor.
But, as is often the case with many modern-day documentaries, there is an agenda to attend to for Grohl. He posits the theory that this transition is what forced studios such as Sound City to close down. This is where the film runs out of steam. It goes from Nirvana’s recording of Nevermind as the savior of Sound City to twenty years later with the employees losing their jobs. This huge gap of time is inexplicable and a serious oversight.
Instead, Grohl transitions his story of buying the Neve sound board from Sound City and re-locating it to his own studio in Los Angeles, a cool thought that reignites passion in the aforementioned musical celebrities and leads to numerous collaborations between these various rock entities. You would think that such sessions would provoke enthusiasm in the viewer, but instead, they simply come across as paeans to rich rock stars who can afford to fly in rare tape from obscure manufacturing companies and can afford to call on Stevie Nicks and Paul McCartney when wanting to prove a point. Very cool for the likes of mega-successes like Dave Grohl, but not realistic for the rest of the recording world who also have dreams of making music. In addition, the recording sessions, which are included in the film to show how wonderful and creative playing together in the studio can be, come across as rather lifeless. The lone exception, ironically, comes from the film’s main electronic proponent, Trent Reznor, who teams up with Grohl and Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme.
Sound City is definitely worth checking out, but be prepared for a massive void during the third and final act.
Sound City is currently available for rental ($6.99) and purchase ($9.99) here.