You know a rock documentary is doing something special when it doesn’t inspire you to pick up a guitar and pretend to be a rock god, but instead inspires you to pick up the tools of your own passion and create something. This is feeling created by Dave Grohl’s fabulous Sound City, which is one of the most entertaining and energizing documentaries I’ve seen in ages. The Nirvana drummer and Foo Fighters front-man has taken it upon himself to tell the story of a legendary recording studio with a checkered but explosive history and important place in the history of contemporary rock. The result is a decidedly modern documentary with very classical themes at its heart. The film morphs from an engrossing rock history lesson to a thoughtful, balanced examination of the friction caused by technological changes on through a thrilling celebration of artistic collaboration. Populated with dozens and dozens of legendary musical figures all backed by millions of dollars worth of classic rock needledrops, Grohl has pulled every favor and called every contact to assemble a rich, thorough history of modern rock recording.
The beating heart of this documentary is a Neve soundboard that resided in an otherwise ratty sound studio located in the valley. The essentially one-of-a-kind board was designed by a brilliant audio engineer and –in what amounts to a miraculous fluke– matched perfectly with an otherwise unremarkable studio space to create a perfect sound for a seemingly unstoppable wave of records beginning in the early seventies with Rick Springfield all the way through the ninties, peaking with Nirvana’s album Nevermind. The magical history of recording in this space during those exciting times is elucidated by the likes of Stevie Nicks, Tom Petty, Neil Young, Rick Springfield, Trent Reznor, Mick Fleetwood, and countless other musicians, engineers, and technicians that worked on the board across the decades, during which countless classic albums were cut in legendary sessions.
The face of the doc is Dave Grohl himself though- he both narrates and appears as a talking head throughout. The doc is infused with Grohl’s infinite charm- that kind of magnetism that comes with great success and confidence earned by monumental (and well-recognized) excellence. Mix all that with Grohl’s pure glee in telling these stories with his impetuous sense of humor and you’ve got a hell of an entertaining doc, even when it’s saddled with explaining esoteric technology or including anecdotes from some boring old guy (who just happens to be a brilliant sound engineer).
Most fascinating to me is the second “act” of the film, which rolls in once the story of Sound City takes a nasty turn in the 90s during the rise of ProTools, digital sequencers, and other means for the creation of synthetic music. Along with shepherding in a rough patch for the studio itself, it provides the film a chance to shift into and examination of just what makes music valuable. Is it the human aspects- the imperfections? Is it the inexpressible organic touches of actual performance? Or is it mere craft and emotion? Can those things be achieved with a computer?
Sound City tackles this friction between digital and analog better than I’ve seen it done in any other documentary of the kind (the recent Side-By-Side being such a doc for the film geeks). Concluding that it is ultimately craft that matters, the discussion acknowledges advantages and disadvantages of both techniques. There is a thread of sadness at the rise of overproduction and the loss of mass appreciation for texture and that certain human sound, but this is not a hopeless harp on the idea that Rock, much less Art, is dead.
Much of the film’s hope comes from its third act, during which Grohl pulls in his many musical contacts to come and record new music on this old board. Abridged version of recording sessions are captured, and Grohl and his team demonstrate a keen eye for catching those pure moments of collaboration. The give, the take, the frustrations and the triumphs are all captured in special little moments between Grohl and Paul McCartney and Trent Reznor and Steven Nicks and Josh Homme and many others. This sequence borders on indulgent, but every piece brings with it some kind of meaning and it’s all entertaining, so you can’t really fault Grohl for not having editor Paul Crowder (Dogtown and Z-Boys) cut more ruthlessly.
The doc is often beautiful, and gracefully integrates archival footage and photos with all the sophisticated techniques that have made modern documentaries so popular and easily swallowed. There’s not a dry beat in the film, and it earns every emotion it asks you to feel. Nostalgia is often a by-product, but it’s appreciation for craft and that momentary excellence that takes 85 takes and an all-nighter to achieve that truly fuels the film.
Grohl has been rather explicit about this likely being a one-and-done filmmaking fling to exorcize a very specific obsession, but it’s a special thing indeed that he’s let loose his passion for this soundboard by means of a movie. Sound City could be 8 hours long and I’d still be eager to see it again. Fortunately for most viewers it’s a mere 108 minutes, and you’re sure to be rocking, feeling, and learning from every one of them.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars