Sundance Review: Dave Grohl's 'Sound City' is a fun, shaky rock doc
Dave Grohl set out to tell the story of his recording console, sold to him from the now-defunct Sound City recording studio in California. What he filmed was a lot more than that, and he ended up with too much to say.
"Sound City" marks the Foo Fighters frontman and Nirvana member's directorial debut, and Grohl seemingly fell into the claptrap that most documentary filmmakers face when they tackle a topic they love.
The doc begins with a road story, of Nirvana touring their way to this unofficial, unseemly rock hall of fame. It went on to tell of the studio's origins and its founders; then the technology of the Neve console and Sound City's drum room. From there, the script was strangled by a series of anecdotes and side tangents, polished moments and lingering interviews. It's as though the story were laid out in bullet points with only the thinnest segues. Like, Fleetwood Mac formed here, something something then Jimmy Iovine and Tom Petty, something something then the girls that worked at the studio, a brief on punk rock in the early 80s, Neil Young's car, the development of Rick Springfield by the studio manager, the advent of the CD age, something something now here's the new songs section...
Grohl expresses his admiration for the Sound City scene and for its founding figures through a very specific lens -- as a member of Nirvana, that brought the studio back to life after a couple of near-deaths, and as a continually successful recording artist today. It's a rockist point of view; in itself, there's nothing wrong with that. But among his tangents is a low-lying attack on the advent of digital recording technology, and the artists that rely heavily on it. It'd be a valid conversation, if that were the film's sole objective.
The Foos' latest album "Wasting Light" was an analog recording, on 2" tape with the Sound City Neve console. Grohl and his interviewees repeatedly extol the virtues of such a method, that were more artists to hire producers and engineers, and record on tape in a venue outside of their bedrooms (regardless of what a dump said venue is), then Sound City would still be alive.
For example, an interviewee said of artists "skipping" the studio approach: "They're missing out on something." Another said your favorite artist's favorite artists didn't have the same tech that we do today, equivocating the quality of output inverse to the recording methods available. Another said Sound City was where "real men went to make records."
And that's where the argument stops. Grohl applauds interviewee Trent Reznor in the film as a musician who can use ProTools without relying on it as a "crutch," right around the time he inserts a supercut of EDM artists like deadmau5 and Skrillex playing to crowds of thousands, like an unsupported accusation of unearned popularity.
Thus, I found myself trying to make excuses for Grohl as a first-time director, whose primary language is in his music and his understanding of its processes. But he otherwise makes an affable director and able-bodied interviewer. Grohl made a movie with famous rock stars in a way that no traditional filmmaker or young documentarian could, simply because he Dave Grohl and it is awesome to witness. It's like he's the Sandra Bullock of the music world, as well-liked, easy to work with, with whom everybody wishes to share airspace and perform.
He also allows for funny personal moments and industry insight that other filmmakers wouldn't dare. For example, Grohl lets a "I have no idea what he's talking about" inner-monologue scroll across the screen as Rupert Neve describes his console's wiring. He performs the pristine drum track to Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit," which then touchingly bleeds into the music video to that classic tune. Paul McCartney, Josh Homme, Lee Ving, the rhythm section to Rage Against the Machine, Stevie Nicks, Butch Vig and others combine in Grohl's 606 Studio to write and record jaw-dropping new originals together, and there's an electric excitement to paying witness to this artistic process. It's a mismanaged balancing act (hey, sort of like having a band!), but it's an entertaining flick and rocking rock history nonetheless.
Grohl is taking "Sound City" on the road, with premieres featuring a live show from the Sound City Players -- a cobbling-together of the famous folk that played in the film. It hits VOD on Feb. 1, with the soundtrack "Sound City - Real to Reel" due on March 12.