While I hadn’t really known much about Sound City going in, beyond it was a documentary about a studio, from lead Foo Fighter (amongst other things) Dave Grohl, the film was not entirely what I had expected but, for a rock ‘n’ roll geek, it was vividly fascinating.
The film is roughly divided into two sections which tell different, but intrinsically connected, stories.
We start with Dave Grohl himself telling us about his first experience of coming to the Sound City Studios in Van Nuys, California when Nirvana recorded Nevermind in 1991 and from there we go back to the late 1960s when the fledging studio began one of its two most prolific periods.
This period is marked by some fascinating comments from the likes of Neil Young, Stevie Nicks and Mick Fleetwood, as well as the producers and office staff of the studio, and it becomes clear that in the mid-70s the studio became a real living part of the music scene of Los Angeles, and the rest of the USA’s rock ‘n’ roll world – though it doesn’t really add any extra context to this to show whether it really was this intrinsic or not.
The 80s are painted as a slightly challenging time for the studios with interviews with Ratt, Barry Manilow, and, most notably, Rick Springfield marking the highlights but we are given the feeling that by the end of the 80s the studio was on a bit of a downer.
This feels slightly odd as the film doesn’t hide the fact that LA was buzzing musically in the late 80s and doesn’t really make it clear how or why the studio had a slump so it does feel a bit like a constructed set up for the arrival of Nirvana and Nevermind to save the day.
For the studios ‘grunge’ and 90s alt-rock era we get a similar format of talking heads including Rick Rubin, Krist Novoselic and Josh Homme, along with more from Tom Petty who, it seems, must have all but lived at the studios for the best part of two decades.
While the basic talking head format of these sections is fairly standard of hundreds, if not thousands, of other music documentaries, what Sound City does is insert sections discussing other aspects of the music industry as it developed from how acts would work in the 70s and how the studio fit into this to the development of computer studio equipment in the 90s.
The most striking of these sections deals with the studio desk or ‘console’, and here is where the film steers into territory which may well be too geeky for the general viewer, as we hear from artists, producers, engineers and management alike about the special quality of the Sound City Studios Neve console.
While this section, as I say, could veer into territory too specialist, I consistently got the impression that Grohl, largely through his own appearance and ‘character’ in the film, did a great job of keeping it grounded so I think even a casual viewer could follow the technicalities and keep the story moving.
The second section focuses on the recording of the movie’s soundtrack album, Sound City: Reel to Real, which essentially acts as a celebration of both the acts who’ve recorded at the studio over the years and the sound of the Neve console itself.
What we see here, as a musician, becomes something of an inspiration as we see Grohl working on the soundtrack with various other artists but, specifically, it focuses on session with Trent Reznor (of Nine Inch Nails) and Paul McCartney.
These two sections focus on the creation of new songs and follow the process of their creation in a way I’d not seen before and, while they veer slightly into mutual back slapping territory at times, they remain a fascinating insight into two very different musical styles (within essentially rock ‘n’ roll) and show how similar they actually are, while backing up several of my own personal philosophies on music.
While it has many facets that are fairly standard of the music documentary, for me, Sound City added something else by focusing on some of the lesser-discussed aspects or the art and, while it felt like it was glossing over certain things a little at times, it had some amazing stories from people we don’t necessarily get to hear from a lot while also showcasing some great music.