Movie Review: ‘Sound City’ a Documentary by Dave Grohl

January 31st, 2013

Roswell Films

Dave Grohl, left, and Keith Olsen, a sound engineer, in Mr. Grohl’s documentary, “Sound City.”

Dave Grohl takes another step toward Renaissance-man status with “Sound City,” his likable debut as a documentary director.

Mr. Grohl has already had considerable success as a drummer, guitarist and vocalist in groups like Nirvana and Foo Fighters and has shown a boundless curiosity with various side projects. (Yes, that was him in a cameo in the 2011 movie “The Muppets.”) Directing “Sound City,” about the recording studio of that name, now defunct, in the San Fernando Valley of California, he shows a decent grasp of how to pace a documentary and how to push nostalgia buttons, avoiding the marsh of smarminess most — though not quite all — of the time.

But “Sound City” is not merely a those-were-the-days eulogy for the studio, which closed in 2011. It’s really three films. The first third is a pleasant, somewhat glossy-feeling look back at the albums that were made there and the stars who made them, with anecdotes from Fleetwood Mac, Rick Springfield and many others that will be candy to several generations’ worth of rock fans. The studio, an unimposing-looking place to say the least, had a knack for turning out a big album just when it seemed on the brink of failure: Fleetwood Mac’s self-titled 1975 album and “Rumours” two years later, Mr. Springfield’s “Working Class Dog” in 1981, Nirvana’s seminal “Nevermind” in 1991.

The film then becomes a chronicle of the slow death of the studio, an analog operation whose heart was a Neve soundboard that recorded on tape, which by the 1980s had begun to be supplanted by digital technology. Mr. Grohl has become something of a musical preservationist, and he and others lament the loss of the human element of the analog era and the emergence of music created and manipulated on computers. It’s not an antidigital argument — Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails makes a case for digital technology as a creative tool — so much as an antiblandness argument.

And then Mr. Grohl turns his attention to making some new music. He bought the Neve board when Sound City closed and installed it in his own studio, and we see him and others putting it to use.

The big draw is Paul McCartney, who is shown recording a song called “Cut Me Some Slack,” seemingly making it up on the spot. It’s a little incongruous to hear Mr. Grohl advocate for a quick-and-dirty approach — “Do it,” he says. “Make it simple. Make it fast. Don’t overthink it.” — while working with Mr. McCartney, whose résumé includes some beloved Beatles songs that were painstakingly assembled track by track. But hey, don’t overthink it.

Mr. Grohl has put a lot of affection into this film, and it shows. One of the nicest touches may go unnoticed. Over the ending credits a catchy song called “Sound City” plays. The vocals are credited to Doug Deep and Paula Salvatore — Ms. Salvatore having been the manager of the studio in the 1980s. Earlier in the film she had spoken wistfully about having dreamed of her own musical career.

Sound City

Opens on Thursday in Manhattan.

Directed by Dave Grohl; written by Mark Monroe, based on a story by Mr. Grohl; director of photography, Kenny Stoff; edited by Paul Crowder; produced by John Ramsay, James A. Rota and Mr. Grohl; released by Roswell Films. At the Landmark’s Sunshine Cinema, 139-143 East Houston Street, East Village. Running time: 1 hour 48 minutes. This film is not rated.

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