Sound City at Sundance: A Review

Posted on January 31, 2013, 10:04 am
11 mins

Dave Grohl at the world premiere of his film, Sound City.

Dave Grohl at the world premiere of his film, Sound City.

Sundance’s director of programming, Trevor Groth, stepped forward to the podium inside the Marc Theatre as he would likely do many more times over the festival’s next ten days. His job was not only to introduce a highly anticipated film but also to introduce the man behind said film. Dave Grohl, Seattle-native, drummer for the breakout grunge-era favorite Nirvana, FooFighters front man, and as of January 18th 2013, filmmaker. Besides being a talented musician, Grohl stepped forward to prove he could handle a video-camera in a style worthy of a Sundance world premiere. Based on the press frenzy in the weeks leading up to Sound City’s Park City debut and the audience reaction following the film, he met the task at hand with the film landing distribution through Variance Film before it had even premiered.

Sound City is the name of a defunct recording studio just south of Los Angeles that was responsible for some of the greatest hits and acts of the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s. The documentary reminisces about the studio’s unique personality, countless musicians who found their start among its shag carpeted walls, and the relationships founded and broken during years tumulteous and fortunate. But a documentary whose focus can be easily spoiled by a quick Google search has to do much more than recount facts. Sound City finds emotion and stories that may have never been told otherwise, finding life beyond what Grohl initially intended to shoot. Also born from this documentary is the much-buzzed about super group, Sound City Players, a sold-out concert, and things that can’t be detailed without ruining the film’s charms and suprises.

One of Grohl's performances in Sound City.

One of Grohl’s performances in Sound City.

Sound City opens visually closer to that of a feature than a documentary.A modest Grohl later joked during the Q & A that anyone with a nice enough camera can pretend to be a filmmaker, but it’s clear within minutes of the film’s open that his aptitude behind the lens isn’t pretend. Aesthetically the documentary is varied, but always smart or beautiful. Initially the camera follows a series of rooms illuminated one by one until it settles on a music console in such a way that the board seems an animate being. It looms and radiates. It appears like it has a life and story all its own. We find out that this is the infamous Neve board which the studio was founded upon, allowing bands to create a rich sound never heard before. Both the focus of the documentary and the eponymous recording studio were born from the story of this mixing board. The pre-digital era analogue console is an exceptional piece of equipment because of its capabilities and the fact that few were produced at the time available for sale. With a price tag of $75,000  back in the ’70s, it’s also the most expensive and beautiful thing within the grungy, haphazardly-decorated Sound City studio.

The Neve Console.

The Neve Console.

It’s not long before we find out that Grohl is, among his other talents, an adept comedian. The keen eye might have noticed the tongue-in-cheek portrait of him in a Hugh Hefner-style robe and lounge chair hanging in the background as they film. Clever story-telling devices are often employed when there’s a lack of archival footage to go along with musician’s stories and interviews. At one point, members of Fleetwood Mac reminisce about how they discovered one of their members after hearing him play in another room of the studio. To illustrate this memory, bobble-head pictures of the group bounce across a visual of the building’s floor-plan while their narration continues.

In fact, one of the film’s most impressive feats is showing a story for which there is very little footage so seamlessly. One of the shrewdest ways in which this was handled involves Grohl’s road trip with Nirvana from Seattle to Los Angeles. Considering not one musician turned down involvement with the project, Grohl could have easily included the other surviving members to reenact the trip, but he chose to simply tell the story while driving solo in a VW van. Doing it the other way would have detracted from the film in two ways. By going solo, it reaffirms that this story is specifically about Sound City as told and created by Grohl. Also, the glaring absence of Kurt Cobain would have diverted attention from an otherwise clean, focused storyline. When you consider that each musician has enough of a story to warrant their own documentary, everyone involved showed a great deal of restraint in their accounts. The focus is always on the way in which Sound City impacted lives and music, and the ways in which those lives and music impacted Sound City.

The set of Sound City.

The set of Sound City.

It would be impossible to discuss a movie so heavily influenced and reactive to music without mentioning how music was used in the documentary. For those not lucky enough to attend the epic concert the night following the film, we didn’t feel cheated because Sound City was such an exquisite ode to the tracks recorded in the studio. Oftentimes it felt like a concert, and some of that credit goes to The Marc’s outstanding acoustics, but the geniuses who knew exactly how to integrate songs into the film deserve most of the accolades. Sometimes a track would fade in and out or distort as someone detailed how a certain piece of equipment affected sound, and other times a particularly famous track would play in its entirety.  Usually at that time people in the audience were tapping their feet, swaying, and everything short of head-banging.


Sound City.

Grohl on the set of Sound City.

As much as the story is about the studio’s absurd and comically disappointing interior, with one artist mentioning that, “you could probably take a piss in the corner and no one would notice,” there is an underlying wistfulness at the backbone of the film. It’s not just a tale of a studio that made great music and was eventually overrun by the digital age— the question of whether technological advancements have helped or hurt music is thoughtfully discussed from each angle. In particular, Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, known for his work with digital music, was included in the discourse helping the audience understand that the point wasn’t to vilify digital technology. Having Reznor’s perspective served to show the value of the organic experience that working side by side with other musicians gives to a given recording. This relationship has been greatly altered for musicians and listeners due to the fact that people simply don’t need to play together or as well to achieve a “good” recording thanks to digital technology. Those gritty imperfections that snuck their way into a recording were in many ways what made the music better, by capturing that ineffable quality of dynamism between the musicians. Perhaps it’s that dynamic we miss we listen to digital recordings… The film is also about that naïve time in all of our lives when we take for granted the amazing things we’re doing, or as Rick Rubin describes, “not knowing you’re with people who could disappear at any moment.” That’s why the audience connected with stories that didn’t belong to them or their life experiences the way that they did. The nostalgia that was created throughout the film was also an acknowledgement that Dave Grohl spoke to, the songs of that era weren’t just songs that belonged to to the bands who recorded them, they were and are our own shared memories. Perhaps part of that comes to anyone who has lived to see a generation find its identity, thrive, and come to its inevitable end the way this organic age of music did. As of now the documentary is set to be distributed through Video On-Demand and streaming services.

Molly Spurgeon is a writer and on-camera host, associate member of Women in Film, and proud contributor to Vanguard Seattle. She’s always been passionate about arts and culture, but it wasn’t until she started with the Seattle International Film Festival while working on her undergrad at UW that she decided to move away from music and start focusing on film and entertainment. She’s long been fascinated with the strange, sometimes nonsensical nature of pop-culture zeitgeist and how one artist supersedes another, to the point where she’s begun a side project interviewing success stories within the industry in the hopes of tracking trends and patterns among their stories and personalities. She looks forward to showcasing Seattle as a major mover and maker of the film industry and seeing Seattleites enjoy the major-city talent that lives all around them.