Raves about the machine
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, February 15, 2013
In the face of the undeniable dominance of digitally recorded music today, it’s tempting to describe anyone nostalgic for the days of the analog, tape-based recording studio as a dinosaur. But who wouldn’t pay good money to see a dinosaur roar?
In “Sound City,” a raucous yet sweetly romantic documentary, dinosaurs do indeed rock the Earth again. The movie is a labor of love for first-time filmmaker Dave Grohl, the Foo Fighters frontman and former Nirvana drummer. Grohl was inspired by his nostalgia for a piece of old-school recording equipment -- the Neve console, on which Nirvana’s seminal 1991 album, “Nevermind,” was recorded at the grungy Sound City studio. Grohl assembles a veritable who’s who of graying rockers to sing the sound board’s praises. Tom Petty, Neil Young, Lindsey Buckingham, Trent Reznor, Lars Ulrich and a host of others who passed through the studio in Van Nuys on their way to fame and fortune wax rhapsodic about the Neve’s fabled sensitivity.
Their passion is borderline obsessive and definitely geeky. But by the end of Grohl’s affectionate, funny and toe-tapping film, you’ll probably agree with its partisans, swept away by their infectious enthusiasm, not to mention by the movie’s tail-kicking soundtrack.
“Sound City” culminates with about 30 minutes of footage from recent recordings made on the Neve board, which Grohl bought after Sound City went out of business in 2011. Up until that point, the movie is mostly talking-head-style interviews with musicians, producers and Sound City’s owners and employees, as well as archival photos and footage from recording sessions.
It’s surprisingly fun to hear reminiscences about the making of Fleetwood Mac’s chart-topping “Rumors” album, Rick Springfield’s Grammy-winning song “Jessie’s Girl” and other music milestones (if not monster hits). Grohl also weaves in a succinct history of how recording technology has changed over the past 40 years or so. It’s less wonky than it sounds.
But the film really kicks out the jams when it lets us sit in on Grohl collaborating with such “dinosaurs” as Paul McCartney, Stevie Nicks and Lee Ving of the punk band Fear.
Perhaps most surprising is the evenhandedness with which “Sound City” treats digital recording. Sure, the technology is derided as soulless and dead by several of its interview subjects.
But Grohl also gives plenty of screen time to Reznor, the articulate Nine Inch Nails frontman, multi-instrumentalist and producer, who seems as comfortable in front of a computer screen as behind the Neve console.
Grohl finds a way to make it clear that he laments the demise of analog recording, without demonizing newer technology. The point is made, again and again, that music is about the creative connections that arise between musicians gathered in a room.
It may seem weird to hear someone rave about a dumb machine, let alone make a whole movie about it. But it’s a machine that’s smart enough to get out of the way.
According to Grohl, who makes his case convincingly, even thrillingly, the Neve doesn’t just make music. It makes music, he says, “sound like people.”
Contains some crude language.