Sunday, February 10, 2013

Sound City

The Sound City Recording Studio, a hallowed musical institution for many of the greatest musical talents of the last four decades, closed its doors in the spring of 2011.  An unassuming building in Van Nuys, California, noted for its unglamorous decor and the stench of the Budweiser plant nearby, was a beacon and home for notables like Fleetwood Mac, Neil Young, Tom Petty and Rick Springfield.  Dave Grohl, whose own story was partially canonized there, gives the famed recording studio a tender memoriam with the musical documentary Sound City, a part home movie, part video diary requiem that celebrates the innocence and magic of a place where many musicians called church.  The film also harkens back to the pre-digital age of recording where artists played and mixed letting everything on the line, forced to go with the subtleties and imperfections of which could be easily fixed in today's mass produced product-branded world-- in other words in a place like Sound City, the talent must be present from the start to the finish.  And while the film, an affectionate ode to the yesteryear of recording, is but an anecdotal footnote, there's a warm and alive feeling as the famous talking heads that Grohl has amassed share their stories and the gritty pleasures of performance.  In many ways Sound City works as on a parallel track with how the advancement of technology has forced not just the music industry, but all forms of media to change and adapt to the times, without a particular care to the nuance or "mistakes" that can sometimes get lost in the way.

Sound City starts with recap of the history of the building-- one of such that most agree was hardly the most pristine or pretty in any regards-- and the dreamers that built up a recording studio in the late 1960s with the hope of signing the next sensation.  By happenstance or dumb luck, the studio struck a piece of rock and roll alchemy when Fleetwood Mac was more or less formed on the site.  The studio became a haven of sorts for many world class bands in the 1970s and 1980s as most were greatly enamored with, what at the time, was a great technological boon-- the studio housed the Neve 8028 Console, which could summon the greatest sounds in the recording industry.  Grohl has a funny bit when Rupert Neve, the inventor, tries to explain the whatsits, all of which appear well over the head of the former high school dropout.  It's the dreamers aspect that Grohl latches onto from the start of Sound City-- not just from the performers, but from the managers, engineers and low-line studio employees, all of whom in rapture by the seduction of sweet music and awestruck by the history that was later being created, many of whom get a loving nod and a platform to revel in the utter coolness of the environment.  The truth is that Sound City, while home to a great many gold records, was also kind of an underdog, with it's struggles to keep up with bills and properly compensate its staff.

As the digital age started to take over in the 1980s, the first wave of trouble started to hit the studio, which now suddenly seemed primed for immediate departure and mere afterthought in the music industry.  In fact, it was an early 1990s recording session for the Nirvana album, "Nevermind" which partially the saved the studio as a new wave of bands sojourned to the musicland mecca.  Grohl, formerly of Nirvana famously, recounts this lovingly.  And just as Sound City starts to cry an anti-digital establishment anthem as it charts the fabled studios history, there's an honest refrain from the filmmakers that both worlds can and should co-exist in a way that benefits the artistry of making music.  The filmmakers to their affect have a nervy disdain for the ProTools, auto-tuned aesthetics of the music industry, but seemingly embrace that the advent of technology can the an aiding tool in developing art, assuming that the talent lies inside the artist from the beginning.  There's a small novel token there that could be adapted to other forms of media as well, especially filmmaking, where as in music, there's a great many skillful artisans you can blend the old with the new to an uncanny and masterful effect.  The Sound City effect may be a bygone era, but Grohl makes an affectionate plea for the nuance and imperfect rawness of artists barring their souls for the nature of performance.

While the film runs a bit too long, especially in the later stretch that feels far more like a home movie than anything else, Grohl has made an impassioned ode to not just a famed recording studio, but generations of artists who lovingly and honestly, just want to rock out.  B

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