Should I Watch..? 'Sound City'
What's the big deal?
Sound City is a musical documentary film released in 2013 and is the directorial debut of Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl. It is about the history of a recording studio in Van Nuys, Los Angeles called Sound City Studios where many defining rock albums were recorded over the years before it closed in 2011. Grohl first visited Sound City in 1991 when he was the drummer in Nirvana and they recorded the iconic "Nevermind" album there. The movie had a limited cinema release but was made available on demand after its premier at the Sundance Film Festival. It secured near-universal acclaim from critics and went on to inspire the Foo Fighters' next project, the TV documentary series and accompanying album "Sonic Highways".
What's it about?
Set among rows of run-down warehouses, the Sound City studios first opened in 1969 and became the studio that had an extraordinary run of success, producing over a hundred albums that went gold or platinum. The studios were run by Joe Gottfried and Tom Skeeter who wanted to start a record company. Skeeter purchased a then-state-of-the-art recording console from an English electronics genius named Rupert Neve who sold Skeeter the Neve 8028, one of only four such consoles in the world.
Over time, the studios would play host to the likes of Neil Young, Dr John, Crazy Horse, Leon Russell, Joe Cocker, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, Fleetwood Mac, Foreigner and many other artists. Despite its shabby interior, the studio remained the go-to place for bands wanting a particular sound until it closed in 2011, unable to keep up with the rise in digital tuning and technology. Grohl interviews many of the artists who played or produced there over the years and invites them back to his Studio 606 where Neve's legendary console now resides to play on a new album...
Release Date (US)
31st January, 2013
What's to like?
If you like your rock music then this film has real significance. Detailing the creative process behind some of the most iconic rock albums of the last thirty years, Sound City is a genuinely enthralling look at the unlikeliest home imaginable. The studios have developed an almost spiritual aura which inspires the musicians to play their hearts out. Drums are especially important at Sound City and Grohl, himself a drummer, assesses exactly what it was that made the music sound so special. He argues, quite rightly, in this digital era of recording onto computers and software like Pro-Tools ironing out any bum notes, that the human element of music is being lost. A shudder went down my spine when one of the interviewees (whose name escapes me right now) said that modern bands no longer practise because the computer can sort it all out for you.
For a directorial debut, Grohl demonstrates that there really is no limit to his talent. The film utilises its fantastic list of talking heads to paint a vivid and colourful account of one of rock and roll's greatest secrets. The film feels fuzzy and raw, like rock should, and it is a genuinely warm and heartfelt love letter to days gone by, of rock excess and the magic that can happen between gifted musicians, talented song writers and brilliant producers.
- The film is dedicated by Brian Hauge, the key grip on the film who died before the film's release.
- The film's official soundtrack - Sound City: Real To Reel - won two Grammy awards for Best Compilation Soundtrack and Best Rock Song for the Paul McCartney collaboration "Cut Me Some Slack".
- Other artists who recorded at Sound City include The Grateful Dead, REO Speedwagon, Pat Benatar, Barry Manilow, Rage Against The Machine, Johnny Cash, Red Hot Chili Peppers and even infamous cult leader Charles Manson, just a few months before his Manson Family crime spree in 1969.
What's not to like?
The film only really seems to wander off from its brief towards the end as Grohl assembles the fabled Neve 8028 Console in his own recording studio, Studio 606. The recording of the album by the various musicians who played there feels a little bit indulgent on Grohl's part but you can hardly blame him when he's talking to so many great musicians. It also feels a little bit self-promoting at times - but again, why wouldn't Grohl discuss "Nevermind" with band-mate Krist Novselic when it is a truly iconic record?
It doesn't dwell too long on each performer, giving each group their chance to tell their story before the next artist comes along and it maintains a user-friendly pace and running time. It might lack the microscopic detailing from Peter Bogdanovich's four-hour epic documentary Runnin' Down A Dream about Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers but for me, this is as good a musical documentary as you could wish for.
Should I watch it?
Anyone with a passing interest in any of the acts featured in this wonderful documentary would be pleased to see it. Musicians, especially rock stars, develop a public persona and it's nice to see these guys speak with genuine love and affection for what is clearly an important place in their lives. Grohl adds another talent to his list of many...
Great For: rock fans, musicians, artists
Not So Great For: the deaf, people who haven't listened to music since the Big Bopper died
What else should I watch?
A lot of musicians have a documentary about them somewhere so obviously, you'll only be interested in those films which cover your favourite artists. Personally, I found the aforementioned Runnin' Down A Dream was much too long but still had a great soundtrack from Petty and The Heartbreakers while No Distance Left To Run covers the career of Britpop icons Blur right up to the comeback performance in Hyde Park but feels a little too flattering for my tastes.
A great little doc, if you can find it, is It Might Get Loud which explores the history and legacy on music of the electric guitar, gathering three musicians in a studio for a long discussion and a bit of a jam. Who are these musicians, I hear you ask? Only Jack White, U2's The Edge and a certain Jimmy Page. As a film, it does exactly what it says in the title and is well worth a viewing.
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© 2015 Benjamin Cox