Sundance Review: Sound City


An hour into Sound City, the film takes an unexpected detour, suddenly documenting a jam session between David Grohl and friends instead of documenting a notable music studio’s history. It’s in this transition that my initial suspicions becomes resoundingly clear: Sound City is basically a film Grohl made to justify his purchase of a really expensive soundboard.

Sound City
Director: David Grohl
Rating: PG
Country: USA
Release Date: Janruary 18, 2013 (Sundance Film Festival)

Located in Los Angeles — a city that birthed many successful bands but few good ones — Sound City is a run down recording studio that survived from the 1969 to 2012, off the back of the custom Neve 8028 control board (one of four in the world) and the bands it attracted, including Fleetwood Mac, Queens of the Stone Age, and Nirvana. The documentary follows the studio from its origin to the studios closure. The interview subjects are hit-and-miss with some hair metal bands hamming it up like a bad episode of VH1’s Behind the Music and others being natural raconteurs.

Sound City‘s schizophrenic structure covers everything from Fleetwood Mac’s formation to the specifics of the studio’s drum sound that defined hit records. None of these areas are covered in detail and they rarely complement each other. Somewhere along the way, the film suddenly takes an elitist, defensive stance that digital recording is greatly inferior to analog. That it may be, but if there is an argument to be made for it, Sound City doesn’t do a good job of presenting it. Somehow Grohl connects analog recording with live band sessions, as if more than one musician can’t occupy the same space if a computer is involved.

In Sound City‘s last 20 minutes, Grohl fulfills his dream of jamming with Paul McCartney, leaving me to wonder if this moment was always the end goal for the documentary — a documentary that doesn’t seem to serve any greater purpose. How can you make a documentary about Sound City and not include anecdotes from Weezer and Metallica? How can you praise analog recording and not include Jack White or Phil Elvrum, musicians that have gone to great lengths to preserve the format. It’s true that these two never recorded at Sound City, but their inclusion couldn’t possibly make the film any less focused.