Dave Grohl’s SOUND CITY is the first great film of 2013. As his directorial debut (specifically in the documentary genre), it lacks nothing in the way of surety: shots are eloquently framed, interviews are casual, insightful and cut to the bone and his pacing is rock solid. One finds it easy to forget that this is the same man who screams bloody murder into microphones for a living.
But Grohl is a man of many talents, as he so perfectly explains in a clip which did not make it into the final film. After hearing an instrumental piece as a child – one which offered a solo passage to each of the instruments involved – he became obsessed with the idea of trying his hand at, and eventually mastering, each of them in turn – guitars, drums, et al. And so the grown-up Grohl has since proved to the world: the legendary drummer behind one of the most influential bands of the past 20 years and a powerful songwriter, vocalist and guitarist in his own right, the man has become a spokesman for this generation of rock music. And now he can add filmmaker to that list of admittedly blush-worthy talents.
SOUND CITY follows, for the most part, the story of the iconic and titular studio since its inception in 1969. The film essentially boils down to the history of rock ‘n’ roll over the past 50-odd years, filtered and magnified through the presence of this single studio and the people who ran it, used it and created inside of it. Rick Springfield, Fleetwood Mac, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Nirvana, Rage Against the Machine, Ratt (all of whom appear in the film – plus many, many more)… The studio defies generations and genres, but it holds one simple truth as a common thread: the importance of artistic creation and, perhaps more importantly, the importance of the human element behind that creation.
For the most part, Grohl’s focus finds itself centred entirely on the studio’s mixing console, known as the Neve Board. This board is one of only a handful that was ever made, and is essentially a one-of-a-kind artifact, left lingering as the days of analogue music recording have hit their lowest point in history. The importance of this board cannot be understated, and Grohl wisely focuses on it. It is a unifying presence amongst these impossibly diverse but equally brilliant musicians; the thing which helped make them the people that they are today. Grohl is adamant about this: Nirvana recorded NEVERMIND in that studio, on that board, and it changed his life.
Though to many non-musicians, the importance of the particulars of this technology may be lost, but Grohl does a perfectly satisfactory job in describing just how meaningful the presence of it (particularly as counterpointed against the digital age, which plays a strong role in the middle portion of the film) is to the creation of the music through which it was recorded. It’s hard to accurately describe the exact reason why this board is so special without getting into brain-melting, scientific particulars which will inevitably be lost on the non-musician, so Grohl smartly sidesteps it. In fact, in one of the funniest scenes in the film, the filmmaker gets Rupert Neve himself (the engineer who designed and built the console) to explain the particulars – which are quickly lost on Grohl’s glazed-over eyes.
Because that is essentially what SOUND CITY boils down to: it doesn’t matter how these things work. It doesn’t matter that the studio is a mess, or that nobody can explain just why the reverb and decay of a certain room in the studio makes it, against all logic, the perfect place to record drum tracks. It just matters that there’s some sort of magic in this place, and that it comes through in the music. It helps create the art, through engineering, or luck, or plain old witchcraft. It just works, because you can feel it.
And that’s what ultimately makes this film so special. After an hour or so of delving extremely successfully into the history of rock ‘n’ roll as it exists around this studio, Grohl pivots the film into something else entirely. Following the history of Sound City Studios up until the very moment when the place closed its doors forever a few years back, the musician-turned-filmmaker buys that console and continues its legacy in his own studio. He invites back all of the musicians whose lives have been changed by it, and they record what will become the official soundtrack to this movie: a series of brand new songs, written in collaboration by some of the greatest rock musicians to ever live.
This is where the film transcends itself to become something truly magnificent. I simply cannot remember the last time I was moved to so much joy as I was in the last 40-or-so minutes of this film. The entire “Real to Reel” segment is so creatively stimulating, so emotionally poignant and so downright celebratory that it defies description. Perhaps this is a fact that will be lost on the non-musical viewer, but for anybody who has ever played an instrument, or followed a band, or just been a true fan of music – this is something you are not likely to ever experience again.
It’s over a half an hour of some of the greatest musicians in the world, gathered around the mixing board that helped make them the artists that they are today and creating new music together. The process is fascinating and, frankly, humbling: when Grohl, Josh Homme (of Queens of the Stone Age) and Trent Reznor (of Nine Inch Nails) get together in a room and slowly work out the specifics of a brand new song (“Mantra”) that they are writing on the spot, you get a real feeling for just how impossibly talented these people are. And bringing them together around this metaphorical personification of what the music industry used to be is a powerful and exhilarating message.
And when Sir Paul McCartney himself joins all of the surviving members of Nirvana to write what will eventually be known as “Cut Me Some Slack”, one gets the feeling that you’re witnessing the entire history of an art form encapsulated in one room, in one moment.
“Why can’t it always be this easy?” asks Grohl.
“It is,” replies McCartney.
And if that’s not enough to make you want to follow your dreams, I’m not sure what will.