(Off-Ramp contributor and documentarian Ray Greene is covering Sundance 2013 with daily missives.)
There's a lot to like about Dave Grohl's cinematic love letter to the studio where Nirvana recorded "Nevermind," and a fair amount to dislike, too. Van Nuys-based Sound City was one of several storied recording venues in the greater LA area that flourished from the late 60's, after the Beatles changed the nature of record-making with their innovative multi-track work on "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." For audio aficionados, the golden era of the Sound City sound began with its purchase of a legendary mixing console -- a "one-of-a-kind" Neve 8028 that some audiophiles believe to be the best mixing board ever created for the recording of rock drums, and no slouch when it comes to bass, guitars, and vocals, either.
That Neve 8028 is the Rosebud of Grohl's new documentary "Sound City" -- the linking device between disparate musical plotlines. Installed in 1973, the Neve was first used to record a pair of unknown singer-songwriters named Lindsay Buckingham and Stevie Nicks. Its role in some peak commercial records of the California rock era was launched two years later by the mega-success of the initial album from the Buckingham/Nicks era line-up of Fleetwood Mac.
As a member of late-era Nirvana and the frontman of Foo Fighters, Grohl is musically a few light years away from "Landslide" and "Rhiannon," but he's a congenial tour guide, and he does an excellent job collating Sound City's hectic history. Pivotal records recorded there include most of Tom Petty, about half of "After the Gold Rush" by Neil Young, and acres of LPs of pop metal, beginning with Cheap Trick's "Heaven Tonight" and extending through Foreigner and REO Speedwagon to Ratt, Pat Benatar, and Rage Against the Machine.
We're far enough down the digital rabbit hole by now for Grohl's always intelligible depictions of the analog recording process to register as both informative and nostalgic. It's a lost world he's showing us, one that went away very quickly when the personal computer and the recording app came along.
Technically, this is a superb documentary. The interviews are well shot, informative, and beautifully recorded; the editing is crisp; the archival resources vast and illustrative. Rock music lovers really need to see "Sound City" -- it's a true labor of love.
So what's not to like?
A queasy feeling, creeping in over time, that for all the on-camera bonhomie, and the film's decision to treat every musician who ever touched the Sound City Neve as an artistic equal, this is a monarch's eye view of music making, without an ounce of egalitarianism. For a musician who often worships at the alter of Punk, Grohl seems to be about the least D.I.Y. rocker of his generation. "Sound City" kvetches hard about digital anything -- CDs suck acoustically; ProTools enables the mediocre to compete against real musicians; there are infinite tracks available via laptop, so nobody makes musical choices any more; and on and on it goes. If it empowers the amateur, it's not only suspect, it's villainous.
When Sound City finally goes under, Grohl swoops in and buys up the board that "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was mixed on, and we're suddenly in a second movie -- a star-studded supersession at Dave's house that ought to be called "It's Great to Be a Rockstar," and which utterly betrays the movie that preceded it.
Because of course the point Grohl seemed to be making was that Sound City was a milieu, and thereby more than the sum of its parts. It was the people, it was the time, it was the hungry young staff that became the seasoned hands, it was even the idiotic box-like arrangment of the walls that somehow, accidentally, led to acoustic perfection. And then suddenly, here's Dave Grohl, strip-mining a dying enterprise, and carting off its most famous asset, which he then proceeds to treat as if it -- and not the lost world he has so lovingly chronicled -- is what Sound City was all about.
The Neve console winds up in Dave's personal studio, where Stevie Nicks, Rick Springfield, Lee Ving of FEAR (gotta have yer punk pioneers to stay legit), and even Paul McCartney come by to play on Dave's vanity album -- his celebration of a purchase that is simultaneously the mixing board that changed his life and a rock god's shiniest new retro toy. As he looks out over his new sonic kingdom, populated by his musical peers and heroes, Dave smiles and knows that it is good. "There's a reason these people are who they are," he says at some point in the session, or something like it. And that's the whole message of "Sound City's" third act -- that stardom knows best, or at least it did in the days when you needed a recording budget of $300,000 and A&R support to make a song. And that the magic of Sound City can be replicated -- it was all in the device.
Meanwhile out there in the vast American wasteland that used to be a passive listenership, some kid with a guitar patched into his MacBook just uploaded a celphone video of his newest composition to YouTube. It's a thin piece of work -- the kid's fingers are still clumsy on the guitar, and his lyrics are pretty much stuck in the "Why Won't She Love Me" stage of adolescence. But there's a glimmer of something in there somewhere. And the simple and empowering act of making and sharing his music? For a pimple-faced virgin just beginning to think about the wider world, it's a freeing act.
When you listen close for his influences, you know who you hear?