Saturday, April 27, 2013
Released theatrically and via video-on-demand in February; now available on DVD and Blu-ray
Tom Petty's Damn The Torpedoes, Rage Against The Machine's self-titled debut, Fleetwood Mac's Rumours, Foreigner's Double Vision, Dio's Holy Diver, Nirvana's Nevermind, Metallica's Death Magnetic, Nine Inch Nails' With Teeth, REO Speedwagon's You Can Tune A Piano, But You Can't Tuna Fish...all of these notable albums (okay, maybe not so much with that last one) were recorded at Sound City Studios. Foo Fighter Dave Grohl makes his directorial debut with Sound City, which tracks the history of the legendary recording studio located in a nondescript building in L.A.'s San Fernando Valley that operated from 1969 until 2011, when it closed as a casualty of the digital age. The musician calls Sound City "my life's most important work", which is high praise indeed for someone with Grohl's impressive music credentials.
The impetus for making Sound City came when Grohl bought several items from the studio after its closing. The most notable item purchased was a custom-built Neve 8028 analog mixing console that Grohl moved to his own studio, Studio 606. The unique Neve console cost $75,000 when it was bought in 1973, which was about double the cost of a house in the Valley at the time, and Grohl explores just enough of the Neve's history and special qualities without alienating those of us less interested in the minutiae of music technology.
Most of Sound City centres on the acts and producers who recorded at the shabby facility that featured brown shag carpeting on the walls and had a knack for producing a great drum sound, with a host of big names that includes Neil Young, Trent Reznor, John Fogerty, Tom Petty, Rick Rubin, Butch Vig, Stevie Nicks, and Lindsay Buckingham interviewed. Sound City, where Nicks and Buckingham recorded their first album as a duo and later with Fleetwood Mac, was also instrumental in pairing up the duo with the group. Grohl, who gives plenty of his own insights into the Nevermind recording experience, doesn't limit his list of interviewees to the more "respected" variety of musicians, either - Barry Manilow (looking like a cautionary figure for too much plastic surgery), former Dio drummer Vinny Appice, REO Speedwagon singer Kevin Cronin, members of Ratt, and Rick Springfield all weigh in with remembrances of their time spent in the studio. There's also many illuminating interviews with some of Sound City's behind-the-scenes figures, like owner Tom Skeeter, and studio managers Shivaun O'Brien and Paula Salvatore.
Sound City works best when it's looking in the rearview mirror instead of exploring the human connection and creative elements of the recording process, as the last third of the documentary does (and which I'd normally find of great interest). Grohl brings together his Them Crooked Vultures bandmate Josh Homme, Nicks, Springfield, Reznor, and Paul McCartney, among others, to record new music on the Neve console for the documentary's accompanying soundtrack album. Unfortunately, little of the music they come up with merits much attention and this section of the film, despite the passion and enthusiasm Grohl has for the endeavour, feels rather like a commercial for the soundtrack and, dare I say it (because I'm a huge fan of his), a Grohl vanity project. Admittedly, it is quite funny and refreshing to see a music heavyweight like Grohl geeking out over getting to record with a former Beatle. Considering the wealth of musical talent that graced the studio's grubby interior over the decades, that 30 minutes spent on the "new music section" feels wasted when there are surely many more interesting war stories that have been left untold (click here for a list of every album recorded at Sound City).
Sound City's unsatisfying final act detracts from the fascinating content that precedes it, resulting in a film that's a little uneven, yet still well worth a watch for music fans.
Related posts: my April 2011 review of the Foo Fighters' Wasting Light album and my August 2011 review of the Foo Fighters: Back And Forth documentary