Sound City is an award-winning documentary by rocker Dave Grohl. This is a great documentary and in reality it is two stories. One story is about the history of Sound City and the other, as Dave Grohl points out towards the end of the film, wasn’t intentional when they started the film but emerged as they filmed. That is the future of music itself in regards to human presence and technology.
A little background. Sound City was this hole-in-the-wall studio, a real dump, in Van Nuys that was bought back at the beginning at the 1970’s that changed rock-n-roll history. It was in these cramped spaces that the band Fleetwood Mac was accidentally formed and hit stardom. It was here that Nirvana gave us the album Nevermind over 16 days and other groups like Rage In The Machine, Fear, Rick Springfield, Tom Petty, Neil Young, Nine Inch Nails to name a few gave us the classics we take for granted on the radio.
Dave Grohl set out to make a story of the production control board which was cutting edge when Sound City bought it and made them unique. As Dave Grohl and Tom Petty aptly point out several times, that board changed their lives. Along the way we discover how Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham were out of work and practically living at Studio City when Mick Fleetwood came through looking for a studio and heard one of their songs. We find out about the people who worked there and discover the glamorous and unglamorous side of the record business and that success in the music field as in other occupations is never clear-cut or easily obtained.
The story shifts though from a history of the studio itself to how technology like Pro Tools transformed the business. Dave Grohl and others in the film find themselves in facing the history of the studio also facing an introspective look at what it means to be a musician. They rip into a lot of the new performers who rely on so much technology they have never honed their skills as musicians and consequently fall short of greatness.
It is interesting how some groups clung to the old methods while others, Trent Reznor being the prime example, took technology and made it another tool in the arsenal. The film really exposes some core qualities it takes to be an artist in this portion of the film and it will make artist and fan alike try to ascertain the value of the human connections in our lives.
One of the most surprising appearances in this film is that of Sir Paul McCartney toward the end. One of the guys who inspired Dave Grohl to be a musician. The film shows them recording together and if you think this is your pop song Beatle-like sound you are so wrong! Try a little Nirvana mixed with punk attitude which actually harked back to how things have changed for here you had the stalwart of the past (you don’t get more iconic than Beatles) embracing the new and yet not losing his identity along the way. He put his touch on the new and maybe that is the key to what the film is asking; technology shouldn’t change us but we should change it to fit us. Food for thought.
One line at the end that McCartney told Dave Grohl has stuck with me and maybe it is just a sign of his experience or greatness. Grohl during the session goes, “Why can’t it always be this easy?” and McCartney looked at him and like a wise man trying to convey to a student the wisdom of his years replied, “It is.” There was a simplicity in that truth that stuck with me.
I highly recommend this film. If you are a music fan you will love it. If you are a musician you’ll probably watch it a dozen times. Either way, you won’t be disappointed. It may even influence you the way it did me …. when it was over I found myself flipping on my iTunes library and shuffling between Fleetwood Mac and Nirvana. Sound City didn’t just rock Van Nuys where they were located, they rocked our world.