Dave Grohl’s Sound City reviewed
A film about the “shithole” LA studio that gave birth to Nevermind is compelling viewing – whether Dave Grohl made it or not. ANDREW P STREET reports.
People are going to see this film because it’s made by Dave Grohl, and people really like Dave Grohl. Even people who don’t much care for the Foo Fighters still can’t help being fond of the amiable dude: he’s the closest thing contemporary rock’n’roll has to a Labrador puppy in human form.
And that acts brilliantly as a Trojan Horse for this doco, because if Phil Smith had made a film about a studio, would you care? No, you would not. And that’s a shame because, as Grohl has made clear, the story of Sound City is a fascinating one.
Sound City was a shithole of a studio in a bad section of LA that just so happened to sound utterly incredible. That unique sonic quality was a mix of the architecture (which sound engineers still can’t explain: on paper, those dimensions shouldn’t work at all for recording) and the hand-built Neve mixing desk (whose purchase by Grohl led indirectly to this film). The studio’s been responsible for a disproportionate amount of massive albums – including Nirvana’s Nevermind, hence Grohl’s connection to the place – and a huge number of those artists appear in the film to explain the strange alchemy of Sound City.
Of course, the aforementioned Phil Smith probably couldn’t have gotten the sorts of people that Grohl has, since he’s A. not the former drummer of Nirvana, and B. someone I just made up. Those rhapsodising about the magic of the scuzzy LA studio are a “who’s who” of contemporary music: Tom Petty, Neil Young, Stevie Nicks, Lars Ulrich, Trent Reznor, Barry Manilow (seriously) and many, many more. However, many of the most interesting stories come from lesser-known folks, like Rick “Jessie’s Girl” Springfield (who talks about the way the studio led not just to his biggest hits but his marriage and family, since it was where he met studio assistant Barbara Porter) and legendary session drummer Jim Keltner, who explains exactly what “feel” is when it comes to laying down a track.
“He’s the closest thing contemporary rock’n’roll has to a Labrador puppy in human form.”
Much has been made of the recordings done for the film, including the “”Nirvana reunion with Paul McCartney, but while seeing the studio at work is a delight it’s less compelling than watching people speak with passion about the act of recording. For example: Stevie Nicks is a multi-platinum superstar, but seeing her speak about the specifics of making the Buckingham-Nicks album was a revelation – it just never occurred to me that she was, first and foremost, a musician with decades of high-level studio experience and knowledge.
And just as a visual experience, it absolutely barrels along. Despite being a first time director Grohl keeps a tight hand on the editing, ensuring that it doesn’t descend into an endless grind of technical specs and discussions of mic placement.
It’s a film about a building, sure, but it’s also a potted history of how recording has changed over the past 40 years, how much the physical act of recording affects the thing that you listen to (the way everyone goes on about the way that Neve board sounds will make you think the damn thing’s magical), and how records are ultimately sounds made by people in a moment of time. Sound City might have shut its doors, but the music goes on. I defy anyone to watch this and not immediately want to make an album.
So, who fancies forming a band?