Sundance Review: 'Sound City'
Dave Grohl's celebration of a studio, a sound and an ethos of rock.
I'm in love/What's that song?
I'm in love/With that song." -- The Replacements, "Alex Chilton"
Sundance has always offered a haven for new filmmakers -- of course, considering that Dave Grohl has had a fairly successful career playing the drums with, and for, Nirvana and Queens of the Stone Age and The Foo Fighters, it's not like Grohl came to Park City with nothing but a dream in his pocket and 100 minutes of movie. Slicky-made, endearingly passionate, full of pop-culture tidbits and touchstones -- and, perhaps, a little too long for its own good -- "Sound City" does what any good music documentary should, which is, specifically, it makes you want to go to the record store immediately.
Note that I didn't say "iTunes" -- one of the resolute things in Sound City is how it turns the rag-tag history of a Van Nuys, California studio into a celebration of music as a real thing, a physical thing, an ephemeral-but-possibly-eternal thing made by people to be enjoyed by people. Sound City was low -- very low -- on décor and charm, but in the early '70s it acquired a state-of-the-art 24-track Neve mixing board with analog channels in -- meaning that you would play an instrument or sing into a microphone that would go through the vacuum tubes and transistors of the Neve console to be pressed to two-inch magnetic tape -- with no digital massaging or trickery allowed, and what you heard was, for the most part, what you would get.
This is not how most songs are made today. It was how songs were made for decades, though, which is why when Grohl and his subjects, both the Sound City staff and the Sound City artists, start naming albums made at Sound City, it's a who's who of rock that brings to mind the line in "Raiders" about how "You and I, Dr. Jones, are passing through history .. but the Ark is history." Substitute "Sound City" for "Ark" and you get the idea -- artists who've recorded there include Tom Petty, Neil Young, Pat Benatar, Rick Springfield, Barry Manilow, Ratt, Weezer, Nirvana, Dio, Santana ... Sound City went from Fleetwood Mac to Fear to The Foo Fighters, and the advance of digital technology (where you could fill a thousand virtual tracks on a electronic mixing board with auto-tuned perfection pouring out like molten plastic to be cooled, cut into flinders and re-stitched by ProTools) put it out of business. Or, as Queens of the Stone Age's Josh Homme says, "It's like anything: There's no more bookstore, there's no more record store, and there's no more Sound City." And kudos to Grohl for asking a question that sounds like treason in our whiz-bang age: have computers taken away more than they've given us?)
The narration is a little on-the-nose, especially when the affable Grohl is waxing poetic about his brutal youth in Nirvana (there is a credit given to writer Mark Monroe, suggesting the fault may not all be Grohl's), but the interviews are lively and fun. Early on it becomes clear that if you were born after 1950, you have, at some point, turned up the car radio or sang into a hairbrush in time with a Sound City production, even if you don't know it. But the film's sense of humor is especially self-deprecating and fun, and Grohl isn't afraid to poke fun at himself, either.
The film's accidental service as a time capsule of pop-culture is incidental, but still great -- ties get skinnier and skinnier until they disappear, receptionists become back-up singers become Platinum-selling artists, rock-and-roll players get pitched off guitar duties on a song they wrote and the net result is a smash hit that changes lives. (If you were ever perhaps curious about the short- and long-term history of Rick Springfield's "Jesse's Girl," this is your opportunity.)
The Sound City story has a happy ending, of course -- or happy-ish, anyhow, with the Neve finding a new home and luminaries coming to it to record and bask in the analog glow of its sound, to mix metaphors. This section of the film goes on, perhaps, a little long, and some of that material could easily be cut. Still, when Grohl and Trent Reznor (Nine Inch Nails) and Josh Homme (Queens of the Stone Age) are working out a track in a studio for the Neve console and Reznor hands the bass track duties, graciously, to Homme, and the song improves, it's a testament to the kind of old-school approach and aesthetic Grohl's talking about: Music is made by people together, not people apart, that computers are a means, not an end. Reznor, for one, is shown as a musician who can, as Grohl notes, "Use the computer as a tool, not a crutch." And, to be sure, no matter how you slice it, the film itself -- with its lively use of subtitles, graphics, and archival photos -- would be impossible without digital filmmaking technology, making Grohl less a hypocrite than, perhaps, just a guy who likes the sound of old rock records and the idea of a band being made up of people who make eye contact, not just solitary bit-shapers moving virtual levers on their Mac Books.
Grohl's doc is clearly a labor of love, and it's to the film's credit that the love shines through so well that you can overlook a few mishaps in the labor. When Christopher Wren, the architect who made so much of London what it is in the 17th and 18th Century, was laid to rest, his inscription read "Reader, if you seek his monument, look around you." Grohl's documentary may be about a place that's gone and a working methodology that's becoming more and more archaic, but it does make it abundantly clear that, rock and roll fan, if you seek Sound City's monument, turn on your radio.