Sundance 2013: SOUND CITY Review

     January 22, 2013


I love documentaries that can teach me something I don’t know, and do so in an entertaining fashion.  I’m incredibly ignorant when it comes to understanding music production, and two-thirds of Dave Grohl‘s documentary Sound City provides a fascinating, hilarious, and passionate look at the eponymous studio, its prominence in rock history, and the technical details behind creating some of the best music of all time.  Grohl does an amazing job at going into the nuts and bolts of music production but always keeping the lesson upbeat and inviting.  However, once Grohl has completed telling the history of Sound City, the documentary shifts into an uneasy place where Grohl’s promotion of the physical music studio over Pro Tools creates a direct analog-vs-digital exploration, and an indirect deprecation of those who share the rock star’s passion for music, but lack the resources to book studio time.

Grohl breaks his movie down into chapters, but the majority of the picture is devoted to Sound City and the details of music production.  We go through the studio’s history, its personality (“You could piss in a corner and no one would notice,” says a former employee), how it was the birthplace of Fleetwood Mac, the home to dozens upon dozens of the best rock albums of all-time, and most importantly, how it utilized the powerful Neve Console.  The Neve Console is the bridge between the rock history, the technical details of music production, and the third act where Grohl goes into the creation of his Studio 606.  Once we’re at Studio 606, Grohl provides a celebration of analog sound by recording with legends like Stevie Nicks, Trent Reznor, and one of the greatest musicians in human history, Paul McCartney.  The director also takes some time to explain the relation of digital to analog and the conflict between Pro Tools and the raw studio sound.


Digging through the history of Sound City is a fantastic experience.  Grohl happily takes us through not only the musicians who made their careers at the studio, but more importantly, the thankless engineers, managers, and other employees who may not have started out at the mixing board, but were instrumental in cultivating the vibe and talent that brought in superstars.  By going through the history, Grohl takes us to the most important piece of technology in the studio and to modern music history: The Neve Console.  Before going into Sound City, I had no ideas how mixing boards even worked, and now I feel like I could get in front of one, and at least understand why I was terrible at using it.  The Neve board is the link across Sound City to the success of analog and across to Studio 606.

Sound City had me absolutely nerding out when it came to learning the art of record producing.  Grohl wraps his arm around our shoulder, and cheerfully explains how music making works on the other side of the glass.  After watching Sound City, I knew that record producers were like directors as they helped guide the music to its best sound.  I could also learn that fact by heading to Wikipedia, but there’s no reason to take such dry approach when the documentary brings a fun, energetic style to educating its audience.  The director also locks in on why Sound City in particular is such a boon to musicians in its unintentionally fantastic room design.  The film carefully but enthusiastically explains how drums are the foundation of music, but drum sounds change depending on the room.  By “luck and magic”, the grimy Sound City has a studio that can record the purest drum sound.


It’s easy to see why Grohl is passionate about the studio since not only was so accommodating to drummers, but because it was where Nirvana recorded Nevermind.  His career was made at Sound City, and the documentary is his way of giving back, but it also gives his viewers a lesson on an underappreciated art form.

The story becomes trickier and less cohesive when Grohl moves the action to Studio 606.  The movie emphasizes how Pro Tools killed places like Sound City, and created laziness among artists and producers.  It takes away the human element and roughness of music making.  While this is a valid point of view, it also reframes Grohl’s picture as one of privilege.  When we see Grohl playing alongside music legends, the film stops being about the larger history of American rock and turns into watching a rock star live out his dream.  Grohl is an affable personality, and he certainly deserves every ounce of success he’s earned.  But this shift changes Sound City from a celebration about making music to celebrating music made under specific conditions.


I don’t believe it’s Grohl’s intent to shut down young musicians who use Pro Tools simply because they don’t have the money to come to his Studio 606 and wield the power of the Neve board.  Nevertheless, when you have one of your subjects say, “Pro Tools was the death knell,” it says that music created in a studio is inherently better than one created digitally.  The digital revolution has made studio analog recording a luxury, and it’s a luxury most musicians can’t afford.   If the next Nirvana came to Studio 606, I don’t know if Grohl would invite them in like he, Krist Novoselic, and Kurt Cobain were invited into Sound City.  I would like to think so.  As we can see after watching Sound City, Grohl’s heart is always in the right place, and with his directorial debut, he has effectively translated his passion and knowledge into a delightful and engaging documentary.

Rating: B

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