If you love music from the last quarter of the 20th century, you'll flip for Sound City, Nirvana member and Foo Fighter Dave Grohl's documentary triptych about a recording studio, its mixing console, and the process of capturing music that moves people. Sound City is good enough to make you sympathize with Rick Springfield and also endure first-time writer/director Grohl's confusion over which way to point the camera. Ignore his narcissism. Sound City is something to see and hear.
Music fans — "civilians" in Memphis — will love the interviews, footage, and sessions. Engineers and producers will be overcome with sympathetic jealousy for the gear, careers, and music. This is Memphis, mind you, and there are enough engineers here to fill the seats at the Memphis Brooks Museum for the single screening on Thursday, April 11th. Get tickets early.
Sound City was a studio that opened in 1970 in Van Nuys, California, and became an improbable fountain of hits during three epochs of popular music. The list of platinum albums made there is mind-boggling. The place is L.A.-filthy and frequently floods. The disarray would send Memphis' Ardent Studios' meticulous owner John Fry to the mental ward in Bolivar.
Early on, Sound City was the birthplace of Fleetwood Mac's third incarnation. Lindsey Buckingham and Mick Fleetwood give great interviews, and Stevie Nicks doubles down with an original song for the performance-based final third of the film. Tom Petty and Heartbreaker-in-Chief, Mike Campbell, offer charismatic commentary over footage of their long relationship with the studio.
The studio's fortunes tracked with musical trends that are well-presented. The hair-band '80s arrive, and interviews with Ratt are gross and footage of Whitesnake reveals the era as a musical Dark Ages when production was distracted by digital technology. Nirvana's input is well-chronicled in interviews with engineer/producer Butch Vig and bassist Krist Novoselic. Sound City's Nirvana-derived success carried the facility until its closure in 2011. Grohl fumbles here, neglecting the stories of key staff members.
He instead focuses on the studio's rare Neve analog recording console, the large knob-covered board that mixes the instruments together. Grohl is glib with Rupert Neve, the elderly genius who invented the console. But he does right by purchasing and maintaining this piece of history.
The film ends with a series of in-studio performances by Trent Reznor, Jim Keltner, and other luminaries. While long, this portion of the film works best. The performances are great, and the sound (drums and guitars!) lives up to its billing. The soundtrack is available now.
Sound City's archival footage brings home the point that our Instagram nostalgia culture chose this period to emulate once we could slap a filter on any image. We fake the '60s and '70s full-time, and that is Grohl's well-made point: Analog sound and social performance make music that sounds real and feels human. To paraphrase an old professor, in 50 years, will Skrillex make us weep? After the Gold Rush will.
Memphis Brooks Museum of Art
Thursday, April 11th
7 p.m., $8 or $6 for members