Sound City

Scenes & Songs is a feature focused on the intersection of music and film, or in this case, TV. Each installment intends to examine movies and shows that involve significant musical subject content, distinct soundtracks, or maybe even just an excellent song used for a specific scene. View all

Scenes & Songs is a feature focused on the intersection of music and film, or in this case, TV. Each installment intends to examine movies and shows that involve significant musical subject content, distinct soundtracks, or maybe even just an excellent song used for a specific scene.

I saw Sound City earlier this year. It's an interesting documentary directed by Dave Grohl about the titular recording studio. This film is about a specific place, but really, it's about how making music has changed drastically with the rise and spread of digital recording technology.  Thus, it's a little bit backward looking. The tribute paid to the old way of doing things brings with it some sense of lamentation about the current state of music making. Mostly, though, the movie is a celebration. It is also a lesson – Rock History 101 – since seemingly every major rock act from the 1970s to early 2000s recorded there. I'm exaggerating, but it was impressive seeing the stacks of records for all the different albums that were put to analog tape at Sound City in Southern California nonetheless. One of which, Nevermind, brought Dave Grohl into the studio's orbit and eventually led to this project to tell its story.

The obsolescence of Sound City signifies two intertwined phenomena: music making now is less reliant on physical space and it's shifting rapidly away from analog technology. Anyone that follows music is familiar with this. Hell, it's the story of every aspect of our society in general. Like anything, you can point to positives and negatives. It seems Dave Grohl's stance as a filmmaker is to view the change in technology as a negative. A lot of people in the film don't think music sounds as good in terms of the quality of its recording and also in the talent and musicianship of the people making it, people who might not otherwise even dream of doing so had they no access to a computer. This is an elitist mentality that leaves a bad taste, but I do understand some of it, particularly how the proliferation of musicians and recording projects results in us listeners overloaded by options, some of which do cheapen the craft.

What really fascinates me, though, is thinking about the studios as physical space. My academic and professional background is in urban planning, and part of why I'm obsessed with cities is how their density allows for chance encounters and diverse interactions. While it's great to have access to everything at our fingertips, I believe there is no substitute for genuine human contact, especially when it comes to creative projects. I love the idea of a studio as a place where multiple bands could come and work, or even just hang out, and in the process get exposed to new ideas and new people. A powerful anecdote in the film reveals that Fleetwood Mac incorporated Buckingham Nicks because of crossing paths at Sound City. Wow. Now, it's not that digital technology hasn't enabled collaboration as well – consider the Postal Service, for example – but I do think an actual physical hub for music is something that should never go away.

The film rekindles this spirit of collaboration by focusing its present day narrative on Dave Grohl bringing together musicians of varying age and genres to make brand new music using the famous Neve console that was Sound City's claim to fame. Many of these Sound City Players, as they are called, made music there prior. People like Rick Springfield, who has a pretty compelling connection to the studio, Stevie Nicks and Lee Ving all lay down different parts. I thought this was cool, though not all the songs worked for me. I found the Dave Grohl-Trent Reznor (one of the digital-oriented guys who "gets it," according to Dave Grohl)-Josh Homme joint to be one of the most interesting; you can check "Mantra" below.

The highlight was members of Foo Fighters and Nirvana playing with Paul McCartney. First, it's funny to see pretty big stars act like regular fans. But more so, it was great to see a master at work. In Paul's mind, songwriting is simple if you let it be."I wish it was always that easy," Dave Grohl says, to which Paul responds “It is.” He's earned that over many, many years, but it seems like it would be empowering to anyone. I always dig seeing a new piece of music form, so this was very enjoyable. The song is pretty good, too. It has more edge than I would have expected. You can listen to the recording or watch a live version (and another).

Now, I mentioned how the film does come off a little as too establishment or old guard and somewhat disdainful about the current state of things. I saw another interesting bit of criticism when perusing the twitter feed of EMA the other day. I was looking for news of a follow-up to her incredible debut (my favorite album of 2011) and saw that the film made her "realize how digital recording is an important feminist space." As she notes, there are some classic chauvinistic touches with naked or scantily clad women posters. It reminded me that aside from Stevie Nicks, this is essentially all dudes. Her thoughts make it clear why the model did have to change. For women, it may have been a matter of comfort, but it almost certainly was a matter of access. It hammers home why democratization of the creative process and increased opportunities are huge benefits the digital revolution has given us. It's a very rockist film, too. I didn't think it through that far while watching, but it makes a lot of sense. I'm not saying the film is evil or malicious. It is the right of any documentary to offer its own viewpoint, and I think some of the arguments made are worth heeding. The point is Sound City was not a perfect utopia, either.

The film definitely tells an interesting story and I liked it. It's worth a watch and certainly makes you think a lot about how music gets made. If you'd like to continue the discussion with any thoughts on recording studios, technology, and more, feel free to share them in the comments. Oh, and if you have any other favorite music documentaries from 2013 that you feel are must sees, please let me know.