Sound City

Sound City takes its place among the  best music documentaries I’ve ever seen. A big part of it is Dave Grohl, who seems like a nice guy who just happens to be a great musician who was lucky enough to have been a part of rock history. Whether he’s in the studio or talking to the camera from the driver’s seat of his Tradesman van, he seems utterly unpretentious.

The movie is about Sound City, a rather junky studio in Van Nuys, California, that had two lives: in the ’70s and ’80s, it was where everybody recorded: Fleetwood Mac, Tom Petty, Neil Young, Rick Springfield, Pat Benatar, etc. The hallways are lined with platinum records. And then, just as a new generation had started to go elsewhere, Nirvana recorded “Nevermind” there, which ushered in a new era of popularity, hosting Metallica, Rage Against the Machine, Slipknot, and many more. Studios are finicky places and the big room at Sound City was famous for its drum sound.

At the center of the studio is a Neve console, a tank of a 24-track mixing board that the engineers and producers love. It represented the pinnacle of analog audio electronics — just as the highly produced synthesizer and electronic drum sounds of modern rock began to not only become the de facto radio style, but it began to change how recordings were made. And that’s when the movie takes a turn: it becomes less about Sound City and more about the analog versus digital divide — which then segues into something very interesting: how the digital revolution has led to more people making perfectible recordings on laptops and how we’re losing the idea of a group of musicians with the talent and collaborative skills to play well when the tape rolls, working on arrangements and creating music live and in the moment.

The last and best part of the doc was the end section. Grohl buys the Neve from Sound City, installs it in his own 606 Studio West, and invites a number of Sound City musicians to lay some tracks down. Even if none of the songs is a hit, it’s maybe the best record I’ve seen of what it’s like to work out songs in real time. We see Grohl lay down tracks with Springfield, Jim Keltner, Lee Ving, Trent Reznor, Paul McCartney, and others, and these aren’t the pointless jams in It Might Get Loud, these are real, original songs and everyone is adding ideas, including the producer Butch Vig working in the booth. (Good line in the booth: “Go ahead, Butch, tell Paul McCartney what to play.”) The Paul McCartney section is particularly inspired, as his backing band is Grohl, Krist Novoselic, and Pat Smear: Nirvana without Cobain.

Highly recommended. Here’s the trailer.