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PAR Movie Review: Dave Grohl’s “Sound City” (An Engineer’s Review)

The subtitle of Dave Grohl’s new movie “Sound City” could easily be “Tribute to a Console.” Grohl, Nirvana drummer and Foo Fighters’ front man, is in love with a recording console: the Neve 8028 that was installed by Sound City in Van Nuys, California in 1972. This console, the film’s centerpiece, was the movie’s catalyst along with telling the story of Sound City, a dumpy studio that became legendary in rock circles, where in 1991 Nirvana recorded their 30-million selling album “Nevermind.” This film, Grohl’s directorial debut, is a very engrossing look into the studio and is a “must see” for rock music lovers or anyone who has spent (or dreams of spending) years in the studio.

If you are into rock music, anything from the past 40 years, you’ve heard songs recorded at Sound City. Notable artists that recorded there include Tom Petty, Fleetwood Mac, John Fogerty, Neil Young, Rick Springfield, Nirvana, Pat Benatar, Cheap Trick, Rage Against the Machine, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Guns and Roses, Foreigner, Nine Inch Nails, Johnny Cash, Barry Manilow (really?), Metallica, REO Speedwagon and dozens more. Producers and engineers that offer their take in the film include legends like Keith Olsen, Butch Vig, Rick Rubin, Jim Scott and others.

Though the Neve console is the backbone and central character of the film, complete with lots and lots of glamour shots and close-ups almost as if it’s a movie star, the film touches on several different aspects of music making, ranging from the technology of the 70’s up to today’s digital prevalence, to the impact of computers and slicing/dicing/tuning on recording, to the relational (how Mick Fleetwood could never get Lindsey Buckingham in his band “without his girlfriend,” the now legendary Stevie Nicks) and the emotional, with the sense of loss over this great recording space, including selling off gear to pay the bills. It’s a very honest and surprisingly candid look at the world of recording, both in the past decades and today. Tom Petty candidly admits that Jimmy Iovine’s initial reaction to Sound City when he first walked in the door was “What is this place? I don’t know that we can make a record in here.”

The movie pulls the proverbial curtain all the way back and offers interviews with studio manager and occasional background singer Paula Salvatore (“I think every male artist who ever recorded there thought Paula was in love with them. She was incredibly hot.”). Later studio manager Shivaun O’Brien recalls “Sound City was the place where real men went to make records,” talking about the fact that Sound City never embraced digital and stayed with analog machines right up until its ultimate demise. The console was purchased by Grohl and ended up at his own Studio 606 where it was used to record the music for this movie. Says Grohl “I thought that board would just go straight to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.” Thankfully, the movie spends lots of time focusing on what really made the studio great: the people. All the expensive recording gear in the world can’t make a hit record without talent and a dedicated support staff. People didn’t come there to record in a messy studio with chocolate brown shag carpet on the walls: it was the caring staff and owners that brought the musicians in, as many of the testimonials confirm.

For me, as a studio engineer, there are many highlights of the movie including Grohl’s brief interview with console designer Rupert Neve, punctuated by Grohl’s superimposed, non-technical musician’s thoughts, which drew big laughs from the audience. Clearly a musician’s movie, from a technical perspective there are a few things that will make an engineer squirm, like when Neil Young suggests that digital recording was flawed from the onset, talking about “when they designed the algorithms for digital recording, there’s something that’s broke.” The movie spends a thankfully brief amount of time pointing the finger of blame at Pro Tools (by name) for music’s demise, but there’s definitely a strong thread of “Digital killed rock music.” I was reminded of one of my favorite sayings “Pro Tools doesn’t make bad records. People make bad records.” Blaming the technology for bad records is about as unfair as crediting the technology when great music happens. While I loved the movie, I left feeling that Grohl can’t have it both ways. Saying that technology is to blame for ruining music, while making a movie praising a recording console seems a bit ironic to me.

In the end, it’s about the music, not the technology. That becomes crystal clear when his beloved console is used to record some less than memorable new music by some big names. But the culmination of the movie is when Sir Paul McCartney walks in to record a song and the viewer gets to be a fly-on-the-wall as the musicians work out the arrangement. It’s a fascinating look at what goes on behind the scenes, including producers telling artists that some of their ideas aren’t golden. The pinnacle of the movie for me came at the end of a take with the full band playing live in the same room, vocals and everything, when Grohl says in an exhilarated voice “It should always be this easy,” to which McCartney replies “It is.”

Whether you download the movie or get to watch it in its limited release in a theater, it’s well worth the money. My review summarized? “See it.”

Note: The film is not yet rated but does contain strong language.

Sound City, the movie |