Published Jan 25, 2013Established in 1969 and known for its custom made Neve 8028 console and analog sound mixing, Sound City is presented as a scruffy, dirty and unpolished recording studio during the opening of Dave Grohl's documentary on its history. Noted by various influential musicians and producers as the sort of locale where you could piss in a corner and no one would notice, the thematic structure of Sound City is that of unlikely success and underdog magic.
After discussing the importance of sound itself, acknowledging the unplanned "sweet spot" for drumming and wide-open recording sound captured by the master console, Grohl's romanticized nostalgia doc dives into a talking heads history. Starting with Neil Young and Fleetwood Mac, we're treated to personal anecdotes with the various musicians as juxtaposed with album artwork and stills photography from their various recording sessions.
While this repetitive structure is standard for the genre, giving little cinematic power to the film, the constant music clips and sound bytes from early demos add some necessary musical intrigue and propulsion to a documentary that is ostensibly about sound. The various secretaries that worked at Sound City—and who subsequently bonded with and married various musicians—are used as a framing device to give the locale some heart beyond the many platinum and gold records recorded within, attempting to bring a heart and humanity to a studio that represents the raw sounds of times passed.
More interesting than this are the many interviews throughout, such as one with Rick Springfield, where he discusses just how Sound City influenced his career and how much he regrets severing ties in such an unprofessional manner in his youth.
As the doc progresses, we're given a cultural history of musical change and progression. The advent of digital recording and computers changed the structure of the music studio in the '80s, making Sound city a bit of a contextual dinosaur compared to the synthesized sounds of more modern studios with hot tubs and added amenities for their musicians.
Inevitably, Nirvana is positioned as a saving grace for analog sound, ushering in a plethora of other bands like Tool and Rage Against the Machine, but because the documentary is so humble in its aspirations, these minor ego trips—be them warranted or not—are easy to forgive.
While the constant music and reflective content of the doc is, in itself, compelling to watch and very much magnetic, there's nothing particularly profound about Sound City overall. It's a competent documentary, but its structure is overly simplistic, featuring footage that any die-hard fan is already familiar with.
Fortunately, the final twenty minutes of the doc is little more than a protracted jam session with some decent live music—featuring Stevie Nicks, Rick Springfield, Chris Goss, and so on—giving a bit of unique musical relevance to the manner in which Sound City might live on in Grohl's personal recording studio. (Roswell Films)