Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl is a drummer, guitarist, singer, and now, a filmmaker – is there anything the guy can’t do? Apparently not, if his documentary about one of the music landscape’s most iconic fountains of creativity, one of the best-received films out of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, is any indication.
A love letter to Grohl’s old stomping ground, the titular California-based recording studio which gave birth to Nirvana’s seminal album Nevermind, Sound City is an intimate examination of both the ridiculous number of artists it allowed to flourish – Metallica, Neil Young, Trent Reznor, REO Speedwagon, Pat Benatar, Fleetwood Mac, Barry Manilow and countless others – and also the less-famous but equally important faces behind the studio glass; the studio managers, technicians and producers who were instrumental in getting so many popular works made. Leaving no stone unturned, Grohl manages to comprehensively convey how Sound City helped to not only form careers, but in some cases, friendships, relationships, and lives.
But what makes the studio – which even its rock star patrons will admit is a dilapidated shell of a building – such fertile ground for breeding iconic, unforgettable music? Grohl lovingly details through engrossing anecdotes the various quirks and attributes which made the location a one-of-a-kind place to make music; the spectacular recording console, the miraculously brilliant acoustics, the bands who formed as a result (Stevie Nicks joined Fleetwood Mac after a fortuitous meeting there), and the charm of the place that turned even its ardent cynics around.
Grohl ties all this exceptionally well into a depiction of the gritty creative process of constructing a song from the ground up, providing nuanced technical insights that nevertheless won’t end up losing the less musically astute viewers.
Throughout its lifetime, Sound City was a steadfast relic, even as digital recording gained traction in the 1980s, with analogue tape recording largely being traded up for electronic drum machines and the one-click studio set-ups of today. As one can expect, Grohl lines up a litany of purists who remain averse to the change, and seem intimidated or offended by the prospect of anyone being able to create music on a laptop – those who have seen Christopher Kenneally’s excellent film documentary Side By Side will find themselves struck by a sense of deja vu indeed. Still, Grohl is sensible enough to give digital its due, noting Trent Reznor as one of its most able and inspiring propponents, while also remaking unfortunate culture of auto-tuned, production line digital music that it has invited.
The implications for Sound City, inevitably, were that it couldn’t compete with the digital studio system – despite a brief resurgence with Nirvana in the early 90s, and bands such as Rage Against the Machine, The Pixies and Queens of the Stone Age recording at the studio as a result – but the film is far from a dirge, rather a celebration of the studio’s influence and how it is able to in a sense live on spiritually if not in its original form.
Given how much Grohl figures in the film himself – a necessity given the personal nature of the project – it’s impressive how genuine and vanity-free he appears here; there’s not even a whiff of self-involvement in the project, which seems somewhat in line with the artist’s stature as the so-called “nicest guy in rock”. Proving serious chops as a filmmaker, he has crafted an authoritative, beautifully assembled, personal, even romantic account of one of rock music’s most important waypoints, a film which aficionados absolutely should not miss.
Sound City is on limited theatrical release in the US, and is available to purchase digitally on the official website.
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