Movie Review: Sound City

Movie Review: Sound City
Director: Dave Grohl
Roswell Films
All Access Review: A

Sound City - Dave Grohl 2013
The inner sanctum of Sound City never appeared in Better Homes & Gardens. Interiors with walls covered in brown shag carpeting and beat-up furniture that even a college fraternity would leave out on the curb would certainly offend the delicate sensibilities of its readership. From the outside, the place looked like a dump. Inside, it was even worse. But if you were a musician stepping into the studio for the first time, those record awards hanging in the hallways certainly made you overlook the shabby accommodations.

Such was the case for Dave Grohl, who made the trip down to Los Angeles in the early ‘90s with his Nirvana band mates, Kurt Cobain and Krist Novaselic, to bring their vision for Nevermind to life in the same studio where Fleetwood Mac had recorded Rumours. Understandably, Grohl has a soft spot in his heart for Sound City, and so do the numerous artists who did some of their best work there. It’s gone now, but not forgotten, having closed as a commercial studio in May 2011, and Grohl is making sure everybody understands what a special place it was with his wonderfully nostalgic tribute “Sound City.”

In his directorial debut, Grohl, in his own inimitably casual and yet excitable manner, does the next-to-impossible, making a dirty, run-down recording studio that had never seen better days seem magical. And it was. How else do you explain the existence of a room that produced absolutely perfect drum sound, even though it had none of the characteristics that drummers want in such a facility? In fact, by all rights, it should have yielded terrible drum tracks, as the producers, engineers and drummers interviewed by Grohl are only too happy to tell you. And then there’s that custom-made Neve 8028 board, the one Grohl saved when Sound City went under for good. There were only four like it in the world, and the care that went into building one helped sound men become studio legends – like Butch Vig, who produced Nevermind

Even going so far as to interview the maker of that very board, Grohl – playfully playing dumb while listening to Rupert Neve explain in great detail how it works – practically creates another character for his movie with that console, its wires and buttons having played such a huge role in committing some of the greatest studio performances in rock history to tape. If only that board could talk. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Metallica, Rage Against the Machine, Fear, Dio, Barry Manilow, Rick Springfield, Neil Young – all of them made records at Sound City, and in the right hands, that Neve board did God’s work. In the end, Grohl rescues it and puts it back to work, as he and the rest of the Foo Fighters record tracks with a number of artists, including Paul McCartney and Springfield, who as it so happens, provides the most poignant moment of the film.

While most the movie is a parade of warm memories and funny anecdotes – Fear’s Lee Ving providing some of the comic relief, while others talk glowingly about recording albums the old way – there’s a clearly emotional Springfield, openly expressing regret over treating Sound City owner Joe Gottfried, a man who’d dealt with him as if he were his own son, badly after he’d made it big. Gottfried’s kindness is remembered by many in the movie, as are the risks he and fellow owner Tom Skeeter took while running the studio and waiting for that big break that would rescue it from certain ruin.

As much as “Sound City” is a lively and enthusiastic study of the creative process and a not-too geeky exploration of music’s “digital vs. analog” debate, it’s also sheds light on the invaluable contributions of those behind the scenes who gave Sound City its family atmosphere. And that’s the charm of “Sound City,” an unstructured, freewheeling film that’s more of an Irish wake than a somber eulogy, where Grohl interviews practically everybody who ever set foot in Sound City and they all toast its shambolic charms with unguarded commentary, speaking of it as they would a long-lost friend. And Grohl’s preternatural skill as a filmmaker – who knew he had it in him? – shines through, as he collects all the engaging elements of this tale and pieces them together, somewhat chronologically, in a way that makes sense, even though perhaps it shouldn’t. Just like the best rock ‘n’ roll.
-            Peter Lindblad

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