Sound City (2013)
Kids, listen to uncle Dave and go learn an instrument.
Sound City is a rockumentary (see what I did there?) about a recording studio in Van Nuys, CA that was the birthing ground for some of rock’s greatest contributions. With walls made of shag carpet, a parking lot with a penchant for flooding, and a prime location nestled directly downwind from the Budweiser factory (which on a good day “smelled like someone burping directly into your face”), Sound City certainly didn’t look like much at first glance. But once you walked inside, saw the platinum records on the walls and started jamming out with the aid of their one-of-a-kind Neeve soundboard, that’s when you knew there was magic in those walls. From Fleetwood Mac to Arctic Monkeys, Sound City changed the face of music forever and in turn became a martyr of sorts for what music would eventually become.
So if you haven’t watched the trailer yet, this here is the directorial debut by the living god that is Dave Grohl. If that name isn’t ringing any bells, well it is high time you got introduced, son. Back in the early ’90s, Dave Grohl was the drummer for a little band called Nirvana. They had some hits, perhaps you’ve heard them, but tragedy eventually struck and the band was no more. A few years later, Dave went and started a band called Foo Fighters. They also had some hits, perhaps you’ve heard them, and they’re still going strong all these years later.
As to what makes him a living god? Well having been nursed on the waters of Nirvana and Foo Fighters, having seen the latter in concert (which was also headlined by Weezer, might I add), and having grown a beard in college because of Dave’s luscious pelt (a beard I still brandish to this day), I certainly like to think that he meets the minimum requirements.
Nevertheless, and despite his many talents, some may be wondering what it was that sparked Dave’s sudden interest in directing films? Well it all goes back to the day fate led him and his buddies, Kurt and Krist, to the Sound City studio in 1991 to record a little number called Nevermind. Much like the experience described in the synopsis up yonder, Dave was skeptical at first, but once he started laying down tracks in the very studio once graced by his musical heroes of yore, he soon came to regard Sound City as a mecca of the medium.
Initially, this is what his movie was about: a passion project and a tribute to the greatest studios there ever was. And initially, that was more than enough to keep me interested.
Now, from the outset, one could very well argue that this sound like one big glorified episode of Behind the Music. And while I don’t have much to refute that assumption, all I can say is that it was an episode I was interested in and one I’d never heard before (and likely one that most outside the recording industry haven’t heard either). But the more I kept watching, the more I realized that this wasn’t just a history lesson about Dave’s favorite place. It’s a testament to the magic of making music, and even though there were times when my studiophobe self had no idea what Dave and Co. were talking about, it was hard not to appreciate their enthusiasm for everything about Sound City. Yes, the start of Dave’s story is a familiar one in structure, but what makes it something special are the personalities and stories involved.
To be honest, I would have been fine if that was how the rest of his story played out, but before I knew it, his tribute evolved into a eulogy.
Fast-forward to the ’80s (of course it was the ’80s) and recording programs like ProTools come along, making the editing process easier than ever and recording a cinch for even the most novice of musicians. The era of reel-to-reel recording, of gifted musicians getting together in a studio to record an album live, of “people relating to each other and doing something that’s really from the soul,” as Neil Young would put it – all of it was on the outs, replaced by an era of digitized perfection.
At first, it’s a conversation that makes you want to hunt down the sick bastard who invented auto-tuning, and for a minute there, it felt really damn good. I mean, I can’t be the only one who doesn’t understand the success of certain musicians who don’t write their own music or play their own instruments? Did we learn nothing from a decade of keytars and synthesizers, people? Because unless I’m missing something, perfection blows if the end result is to be reminded thirty times in three minutes that Rihanna found love in a hopeless place. I didn’t need a movie to tell me this, but music isn’t supposed to be perfect, it’s supposed to be real, and as Dave would put it, “Those imperfections – that’s cool, and it makes [music] sound like people.”
All of it is enough to make one want to gather up a posse and march on into town, but before I could so much as light up my first torch, the tone shifts.
Be it Betamax or floppy disks, the fact of the matter is that it was only a matter of time before analog made way for digital. And since Sound City wasn’t having any of that noise, it was only a matter of time before they became another victim. So instead of settling on an “Eff you, ProTools!” platform, the discussion broadens. See, folks, the obstacle we face today isn’t a matter of trying to turn back time or how to best hate the game, but rather keeping the spirit of Sound City alive in a world driven by technology. And when you’ve got someone like Trent Reznor to show us the way, you’ll believe that it can be done. And even with a modicum of personal experience to draw from, I can wholeheartedly attest to what Dave and Co. are getting at.
Back in high school, I started playing the drums. Not counting air drums, I haven’t really kept up with it since (part laziness, part noise complaint clauses on rental property agreements), but the reason I bring this all up is because for a couple glorious hours in my life, I got to the chance play in a recording studio with the band that would become The World War I’s. Sure, they were way more musically gifted than I was, and their current drummer makes me look like an inebriated toddler banging pans together, but it was one of the greatest musical experience I’ve ever been a part of.
It’s an experience that’s hard to explain because there’s nothing quite like it. It’s an experience that everyone ought to have at some point in their lives; an experience that I’m still longing to repeat. And even if you haven’t experienced what it’s like to get together with other people and just play music, the fact that that’s the lasting impression Dave is trying to leave us with is enough to make you want to start a band.
As a nitpicky movie geek, there are parts where it does feel like a directorial debut, and the transition from Sound City to Dave’s studio in the final Act didn’t strike me as the next logical step for this doc to go in, but as a unabashed music geek, it’s hard to imagine this being directed by anyone else. For chrissakes, if it weren’t for Dave, Sound City would have shut down 20 years ago, and if it weren’t for Dave, I don’t even want to think about what my taste in music would be like.
So whether you’re just getting clued in or if you’re Rick-effing-Springfield, Sound City works on a lot levels and drops a whole lotta knowledge in the process. It works as an introduction; it works as a much-needed discussion; it works because it simply fucking rocks. I wasn’t expecting this story to keep changing colors the way it did, but the fact that it ultimately becomes so much more than just reminiscing on the past is what elevates it to a level of real importance. As Dave so eloquently puts it, “In this age of music where you can simulate anything, how do you retain that human element?” And as someone who digs what that element can bring, it’s great to see that it’s far from gone and it’s great to see my musical heroes embracing it.
Time for the masses to jump on the bandwagon.
And keep an eye out for the effing hilarious portrait that Dave has of himself in his recording studio. Too-freaking-good, man.