April 08, 2014

Dave Grohl's SOUND CITY Captures The Joy Of Making Music

"There's no book store, there's no music store and there is no Sound City."
Sometimes the old ways are still the best ways.

When it comes to filmmaking, there are a lot of people involved behind the scenes that never quite get the same recognition as actors, directors and writers.  Lighting technicians, sound designers, editors, cameramen...the movies we know and love wouldn't exist without these fine folks.  They tend to be known and respected within the industry, but when it comes to the public at large they rarely seem to get their due.  The exact same is true in the music industry.  There are countless unsung heroes spanning the history of entertainment and if there's anything better than a documentary about notable unknowns, it's one that delves into the nitty gritty of how art gets made.

Sound City is a fascinating look back at the untold history of the legendary recording studio of the same name located in the Van Nuys, California.  The building was pretty nondescript on the outside and often looked even worse on the inside, (Legendary music producer Jimmy Iovine is shown standing in the middle of the studio muttering, "Someone should firebomb this place.") but Sound City was a magical spot that produced legendary music.  I guarantee you that not only were some of your all time favorite songs laid down at this studio, but had they been recorded elsewhere, they just wouldn't sound the same.  For fuck's sake, this is where Mick Fleetwood met Stevie Nicks and Lindsay Buckingham.

In other words, if you're a fan of Fleetwood Mac, you have Sound City to thank for it.

They were the ones who signed Rick Springfield to a recording contract and nurtured his early career, including getting him a regular gig on General Hospital and crafting his first number one hit.

In other words, if you hate the song "Jessie's Girl", you have Sound City to thank for it.

Director Dave Grohl (yes, that Dave Grohl) spends about two thirds of the film chronicling Sound City's epic history, including some of the things that made the studio so unique.  At the heart of Sound City was the infamous Neve board, a massive mixing board "built like a brick shithouse" that gave the engineers an absurd amount of control over the recording process and which only recorded to old analog tape.  There were only a handful of the boards ever produced and they were so elaborate that they were extremely expensive - the studio owner at the time bought a house for about half the cost of the Neve board - but the Neve made Sound City a singular place to make music.  Even with the advent of digital recording (which Sound City strongly resisted) that Neve sound simply could not be replicated.  The drum room also lended to the almost mystical quality of the studio, as it produced an incredible quality of sound that seemed to almost defy the laws of physics themselves.  Grohl and his sound department smartly utilize the various mic feeds and recording tracks to help properly illustrate all the different components involved in crafting something as basic and essential as a killer drum track.  There's a great bit where Grohl is whaling away on the drums and even before they layer in the other instruments, it's instantly recognizable as Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit."

Sound City had a tumultuous history, constantly on the verge of bankruptcy and in danger of disappearing.  They prospered during the 70's, when everyone wanted to record in the same studio as Fleetwood Mac and Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers.  Sound City played host to Neil Young, Cheap Trick, Foreigner, Rick Springfield, REO Speedwagon, The Grateful Dead and a host of other musical icons.  Then business floundered in the late 80's with the rise of synthesizers and the digital instrumentation that ran counter to the very soul of Sound City.  The engineers and studio producers are presented as a lovable, ragtag bunch with a million incredible stories to tell, and thankfully Grohl gives each of them their due.  The studio was about to go under in the early 90's, but it was ultimately saved by the arrival of Nirvana, who recorded the seminal Nevermind at the flagging studio and inspired a whole new generation of musicians to follow their example, including Red Hot Chili Peppers, Nine Inch Nails, Queens Of The Stone Age, Rage Against The Machine and Weezer.  There's plenty of great vintage photography and video of these musicians hard at work laying down their music and I couldn't help but think back to my old cover band BiPFT! and all the hours we spent recording songs in my L.A. apartment.  Some days were non-stop fun while other days saw tempers flare.  Jamie likes to tell a story about the only time she came to visit while we were working on a song, singing the same riff over and over and over again trying to perfect the harmony and the timing.  We may not have had a fancy Neve board, but looking back on our no-frills recording sessions it feels very true to the spirit of Sound City itself, located about an hour north of us.  I miss those days more and more.  My iPhone is almost always on shuffle and whenever it plays a BiPFT! song in the car or on the subway, I'm instantly transported back to ny old bedroom on La Tijera Blvd.  And I can't help but smile.

The last third of the film details the death of Sound City, which finally went out of business in 2011.  But Grohl, who shared such a personal connection with the studio, refused to let it fade away without a fitting tribute.  The film itself would have been an admirable memorial, but Grohl took it one step further.  First and foremost, he purchased the studio's Neve board and installed it in his own 606 Recording Studio.  He then gathered together some of Sound City's biggest alumni, including Stevie Nicks, Trent Reznor, Lee Ving, Rick Springfield and Sir Paul McCartney and recorded a really great album full of killer tracks.  And we get to watch them record the whole thing.  Everyone is just so overjoyed to be involved in the project and you can tell that, like Grohl, they all have a very personal connection to the legacy of Sound City.  Grohl himself has already secured his place in music history, but he brings such an infectious joy to telling this particular story it's hard not to fall in love with the guy, especially when he geeks out over the chance to record a track with an actual living Beatle.  And I started freaking out watching it because they're also playing with Pat Smear and Krist Novoselic.  In other words, it's Nirvana reborn, but with Paul Fucking McCartney sitting in for Kurt Cobain.  THAT'S INCREDIBLE!  The album itself is sneaky great, not super catchy at first blush but full of songs that slowly grow on you and reveal their true strengths on the second, third and fourth listens.

If you consider yourself a fan of music, you should be a fan of Sound City.  Grohl's film manages to capture the scrappy spirit of the once great studio as well as the blood, sweat and tears that went into so many of the iconic songs and albums that were recorded there.  Those songs may be what get passed down through the ages, but Sound City proves that the actual process of making music is no less fascinating and enjoyable than the final product.

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Title: Sound City
Director: Dave Grohl
Starring: Dave Grohl, Stevie Nicks, Lindsay Buckingham, Mick Fleetwood, Paul McCartney, Trent Reznor, Lee Ving, Rick Rubin, Tom Petty, Paula Salvatore, Tom Skeeter
Year Of Release: 2013
Viewing Method: Amazon Prime Instant Watch (Laptop)