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"Sound City" captures music's visceral charms

February 1, 2013 - Andy Gray
Dave Grohl’s documentary “Sound City” was released today as a HD digital download, and it can be watched on demand on cable systems and from iTunes and Amazon.

The movie had its Los Angeles premiere Thursday and also was shown in select theaters nationwide, including the Cedar Lee Theatre in Cleveland Heights.

Seeing it on a big screen in a theater with a quality sound system definitely had its perks, but there will be an advantage to watching “Sound City” at home too. The second the movie is over, viewers will feel the need to root through their music collections, drag out the CDs or some precious vinyl and crank up the volume.

And there’s a good chance that just about any rock record collection includes an album that was recorded at the Southern California studio, whether it’s ‘70s rock (Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush,” Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumors,” Elton John’s “Caribou,” Cheap Trick’s “Heaven Tonight,” REO Speedwagon’s “You Can Tune a Piano …”), ‘80s metal (Ronnie James Dio’s “Holy Diver,” Ratt’s “Out of the Cellar”) or ‘90s alternative (Nirvana’s “Nevermind,” Tool’s “Undertow,” Red Hot Chili Pepper’s “One Red Hot Minute” and self-titled debuts by Rancid, Rage Against the Machine and Blind Melon). Most of Tom Petty’s catalog was recorded there as were Rick Springfield’s ‘80s hits.

I went into “Sound City” excited because of the subject matter, but I didn’t expect much beyond a collection of nostalgic musicians repeating variations of, “Man, that place was awesome,” mixed with some anecdotes and sound snippets.

But Grohl’s movie delivers that and so much more. The film captures the first-time director’s exuberance and passion for music and even makes a convincing argument for what made Sound City so important.

The movie goes into some detail about how special the drum sound was in the space and how the recording studio went about capturing it. It immediately follows the conversation with the opening of Pat Benatar’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot,” and that beat that any classic rock fan has heard thousands of times takes on a different feel in that new context. The movie will make you a better music listener.

The movie also is a celebration of the collaborative and communal nature of great music. Musicians may be able to record an album on a laptop that can recreate any musical instrument and use ProTools to smooth out any wrong notes. But they can’t duplicate what happens when a bunch of players are in a room together reacting to each other, pushing each other and trying to impress the hot receptionist with each take.

Grohl, who was born in Warren, is a novice director, but as a musician he understands the importance of assembling a good band. In addition to the who’s who of musicians on camera, Grohl worked with documentary screenwriter Mark Monroe (“Chasing Ice,” “The Cove,” “The Tillman Story”) and editor Paul Crowder (“Chasing Giants,” “Dogtown and Z-Boys”). That team gives the movie a strong narrative arc.

What starts as a history of the studio and its majestic Neve soundboard evolves into a more personal story. When Sound City closed in 2011, Grohl purchased that soundboard (which cost about $76,000 in 1972, compared to the $38,000 Sound City co-owner Tom Skeeter spent on his home).

He brings together many of the musicians that recorded at Sound City to see if the Neve can work the same magic at its new home in Grohl’s 606 Studio in Los Angeles. Based on what can be heard in the film, it does (the soundtrack will be released on March 12).

The success of Nirvana’s “Nevermind” certainly launched Grohl’s career. Would the album have had the same impact if it had been recorded somewhere else? Probably, but there are no guarantees.

Grohl acknowledges that, and the movie concludes with him in the studio with the soundboard, the producer (Butch Vig) and the surviving members of Nirvana (Krist Novoselic and Pat Smear) along with Paul McCartney of The Beatles, the band Grohl credits with teaching him everything he knows about songwriting. The glimpse at their collaborative process is a rare treat.

There’s a famous quote about rock journalism (attributed to various musicians over the years) – “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” Movies also have a tendency to fall short in capturing music’s visceral charms.

“Sound City” is the rare movie that does. And it also has great stories about how Sound City is responsible for the classic lineup of Fleetwood Mac and how Neil Giraldo had some canine intimidation when recording that instantly recognizable guitar riff for Rick Springfield’s “Jessie’s Girl.”


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Blog Photos

Warren native Dave Grohl (AP Photo)