Given how often the PSN blog has written about Sound City and its novice director, Dave Grohl of Foo Fighters and Nirvana, you’d think I would have seen the film already, but in truth, I only just got around to it. While that means I got to see it with clear eyes after all the hype had died down, it also means that the rest of the world's already reviewed it, including our own Pro Audio Review. Nonetheless, here's some stray thoughts about Grohl’s love letter to the Neve 8028 console he bought from the titular studio when it went bust in 2011:
• Dave Grohl loves his desk. The film features dozens of people extolling their love of the Neve, and yeah, it goes overboard after a while, but it’s hard to begrudge Grohl being excited about his cool, new toy. It's also easier to swallow all those raves when they're coming from folks like Tom Petty, Neil Young, Rick Rubin, Keith Olsen, Butch Vig, John Fogerty, Barry Manilow (!), Rick Springfield and many others. Hmmm—if you make an entire movie about a Neve, can you use the console as a tax write-off because it was a prop?
• One of the things I always tell new Pro Sound News writers is "The story is not about the gear; it’s about the people who use the gear." Don’t get me wrong: Equipment is the key ingredient in our articles, but what readers really want to know is how and why it’s used—and that’s the “people” aspect. As a first-time director, Grohl nails this.
Without getting too deep into the tech-speak (in fact gently poking fun at it during a moment with Rupert Neve himself), Grohl and his various interviewees explain and illustrate their love of the desk in a segment that comes down to three oft-repeated words: The drum sound.
• The first two-thirds of the movie is about the rise and fall of Sound City, but it focuses almost exclusively on tales from the late '70s/early '80s incarnation of the studio. The facility’s late '80s hair-metal years are noted and set aside within seconds, and its ’90s grunge-era revival is only somewhat longer for the fact that Grohl himself finally enters the story when Nirvana shows up to record Nevermind there. While I doubt anyone cares what happened when, say, Loudness recorded there, surely there was more to be said overall about this 20-year span.
• Ending the movie with the studio going belly-up would leave the audience bummed out, so Grohl cleverly chose to make the third act all about bringing the desk to life again in his own studio by recording collaborations with some of the rockers who’d recorded on the Neve in decades past. This final section tackles the double duty of creating a cool soundtrack and ending the flick on a far more positive note. The Stevie Nicks / Foo Fighters collaboration is the most Fleetwood Mac-y thing I’ve heard since 1987’s Tango In The Night album—and that’s a good thing. The Jim Keltner track is wonderfully moody, as is Trent Reznor’s collaboration, and the Paul McCartney one? Well, getting to watch The Legend at work is a treat [One sticking point: They never say what McCartney recorded at Sound City back in the day, bringing into question whether he actually ever did or if they made a suitably awesome exception to their conceit].
• The film has one major problem area, and I'm not the first to point it out. Towards the end, Grohl tells how the studio fell behind the times with the advent of digital recording, and then rails at length against Pro Tools. Here, he builds an argument by using interviewee quotes like “Sound City was a place where real men went to make records” in order to suggest that analog recording is somehow more pure or honest because of the limitations it puts into the process. Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails is brought into the picture, apparently to be an exception to the rule, as numerous people then talk admiringly as to how Reznor uses digital recording as a “creative tool”—as if everyone else who uses it is just a monkey with a squirt gun.
The segment builds and builds until Grohl eventually says that while he “wanted to tell the story of the board, the conversation became something much bigger—like, in this age of technology where you can simulate or manipulate anything, how do we retain that human element? How do we keep music sounding like people?”
And then he never really answers his own question.
Fortunately, someone gives the answer just 10 minutes earlier in the flick, shoving the petty analog vs. digital argument aside and laying some bigger picture, Obi-Wan Kenobi-style wisdom on young padawan Dave:
“I think the downside these days is thinking that I can do this all on my own,” intones Mick Fleetwood. “Yes, you can do this all on your own—but you’ll be a much happier human being to do it with other human beings. And I can guarantee you that.”
Boom. Fleetwood’s basic, eloquent, well-observed insight is worth the price of admission right there, because it recognizes that times have changed and the digital genie ain’t going back in the bottle, but also that ultimately, analog vs. digital doesn't matter—that, just like a PSN article, it’s not about the gear; it’s about the people who use the gear.
So in the end, Sound City is a fairly good flick. Sure, it's flawed in places, but that falls in line with Grohl's quest to retain humanity in his creations. Is it worth seeing? Absolutely. The affable host may humbly point out in the film that he's a high school dropout, but his smart film will give you plenty to think about long after it's over.