TL;DR: This film is not only a look back at an iconic recording studio. It is not only a look back at some of the most iconic Rock albums produced by some of the most legendary musicians either. It is a testament to what it takes to make great music while providing an analysis of what that means in today’s digital world.
A mixing console and tape.
That’s literally what holds together Sound City, the documentary revolving around the legendary studio of the same name. It also happens to be the directorial debut of Dave Grohl, whose musical resume includes being a musician in some of those most important modern Rock bands like the Foo Fighters, Queens of the Stone Age, Them Crooked Vultures, and of course, Nirvana.
He began with Nirvana, who really catapulted to the mainstream with “Nevermind.” This album was recorded in Sound City. That’s perhaps what makes him qualified to tell the important story of Sound City and it perhaps makes for a good way to start the story as well.
The film essentially consists of three distinct segments and within those segments, there are different sub-segments the film explores and acknowledges. The first provides us a look at Sound City’s beginnings, and in turn, the beginnings of the careers Sound City launched. What is interesting about the approach taken is that the film goes beyond just listing specific dates of when the studio was established, when certain key artists arrived etc. In addition to all that, the film also looks at the studio’s rare Rupert Neve mixing board, which is analog. Something that might ordinarily be overlooked in a film about a legendary studio, this film really focuses on specific aspects such as the board that set the studio apart from others and it serves in tying in the main overarching theme of the film, hinted at in the first part but expanded upon later. Again, it’s this mixing console that really becomes the main symbol of the film. On a side note, it’s absent from the films promotional cover, and perhaps would have made a better fit.
To me, what separates Sound City from other documentaries that look back at key moments of music history is that it’s a film that goes past nostalgia. It’s not just simply a sad look at a musical landmark that once was. Instead, the film celebrates not only the studio itself and those musicians that made such visionary records, but also what elements with the studio helped make that music possible, like that analog board. As is often mentioned in the film, that board was not only able to capture amazing sounds generated purposefully by the musicians, it also captured imperfections that couldn’t be cleaned up, yet allowed for that “human” aspect that this film really champions, especially as the film goes on.
Once you realize the the albums that were created from this studio, you will burst into tears; first, simply due to the sheer epic-ness of it all. Second, because you realize the magic created there can never be duplicated again.
Even simply the artists are a testament to the caliber of musicians that were drawn to the place. From Fleetwood Mac and Pat Benatar to Rage Against the Machine and Johnny Cash.
The film also makes sure to pay homage to the producers behind the music, who took their role to mean that they got involved in the crafting of these records, like Keith Olsen, Butch Vig and the forever-bearded Rick Rubin.
The second portion of the film is where the resentment comes in. After seeing all of Sound City’s glory, the film then explores the studio’s downfall. While many studios were born from the digital revolution, Sound City despite its seemingly valiant attempts to resist it, simply couldn’t keep up with the industry if it didn’t adopt the tech. The blame for the beginning of the decline of this once-great recording mecca is the advancement of recording technology, specifically the tools that made themselves available to consumers through what is referred to as the “digital revolution; tools like Pro Tools and CDs in the 80s, for example. While it’s clear through this film that the digital advances in music were becoming unwillingly adopted by other studios, who thus were able to survive, the film is able to drive a discussion of this period that is critical yet not naive, irrelevant and petty.
Being anti-digital is a common thread among most traditional Rock N Roll-ers. Dave Grohl himself has often spoken out about artists that sit by themselves behind a laptop and make “music”. What these criticisms often don’t look at are those artists that do use these tools in innovative ways, as opposed to simply as shortcuts. In his film, Grohl provided perhaps a more fair analysis of the quality of music post-digital revolution. For example, he uses Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails as an example of a musician that has embraced digital tools to make music, yet is still able to retain a “human element” in his music while doing so. While Reznor is just one person out of many that one could acknowledge uses technology like pro-tools to create compelling music, it gives the film the room and credibility to expand on their views of the analog VS digital debate.
The third part of this film, again, is an argument for analog music making, and overall, what the film sees as making human music; music that is imperfect and based from a group of musicians simply getting together to see what comes from a jam. Sound City sold off a lot of it’s equipment due to financial pressures and the film documents Dave Grohl coming through and buying that mixing board that so captivated him. He installs it in his own studio, which is of course home to analog recording systems, and in homage to the studio and the music that has clearly played such a large role in his life, he invites those musicians that played such an integral role in the history of Sound City to once again make new music vis a vis that old Neve console.
The result is Real to Reel, an album that is an homage to good Rock N Roll, some of the iconic musicians that make it, and to the technology that for a long time made make music possible. On a perhaps unrelated note, the film focuses on a song Grohl records in his studio for the new album with Paul McCartney. Of course, McCartney, unlike the others who record with Grohl, doesn’t have a strong connection to Sound City. However his inclusion epitomizes what the film is about.
McCartney’s presence in a way justifies the overall goals of the film, it seems. As Grohl says, there is a benefit in not only studying the music of your favorite artist, but also in looking at what inspired that favorite artist. The film gives the young musicians of today a look at how some of the legends of the music business created their music, what inspired them and how they made that music. The common thread among some of the greatest musicians isn’t simply that they all happened to record in the same studio. Rather, the common thread is that they all arrived with their influences and their own human personalities and converted that into their own original creations. They arrived, jammed and played music. Even though Sound City was no longer where they were creating their music, as long as they stayed true to their craft, that didn’t matter. And it wasn’t something solely reserved to Sound City’s artists, either. That music can still be created, those amazing moments of genius can still happen, and the film is a testament that Rock N Roll music, in the truest sense, can still live on.
There are still some chances to catch the film in theaters here in Miami:
February 9th at 11:00pm
February 10th at 3:00pm