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Sound City at SXSW

March 10, 2013

The South by Southwest Conference got underway yesterday with SXSW Film, one leg of the tripod extravaganza that also features Interactive and Music components. Twenty-two different movie were shown on 13 different screens, and the surest sellout was Sound City, the new documentary by the Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl.

Sound City Studio, located in an especially ugly part of Van Nuys, was put on the map when the Lindsey Buckingham version of Fleetwood Mac broke all previous sales records after recording its 1975 Fleetwood Mac album there. The facility soon became the birthplace of countless multi-platinum albums by everyone from Tom Petty to Ratt. By 1991, however, Pro Tools, drum machines and samplers had pushed the legendary analogue studio to the brink of extinction. That’s when an obscure trio from Seattle, featuring the 22-year-old drummer Dave Grohl, drove up in a van to record an album.

The band was Nirvana, of course, and when the album, Nevermind, topped the Billboard album charts, “It was just like Fleetwood Mac all over again,” Sound City owner Tom Skeeter declares in the film. Now you don’t hear Nirvana compared to Fleetwood Mac very often, but both bands did record sonically glowing, chart-topping albums at a studio renowned for the best drum sound in rock’n'roll. It’s to Grohl’s credit as both director and narrator that he treats both bands—and Rick Springfield and Lee Ving as well—with the same respect. This ecumenical spirit liberates the picture from scenester snobbishness and makes it a fascinating tale about rock’n'roll in all its permutations.

Rock stars from John Fogerty to Josh Homme serve as talking heads but so do the studio’s receptionists and gofers. The faces are overwhelmingly male and white, but that was the scene, and Grohl does a good job of depicting it, if not challenging it. But the director is not content to merely spin the story of a business; he uses Sound City to tell the tale of changing studio technology and how that affected the rock’n'roll you heard on the radio. Neil Young and others are allowed to rant against digital technology, but Trent Reznor is allowed to make the counter-argument—and is shown creating a new song with help from Grohl and Homme.

That footage is from 2011, after Sound City had finally succumbed to the digital revolution and gone out of business. Grohl had purchased the studio’s mythic Neve control board and had transported it to his own Studio 606. The Reznor track was just one of several new recordings created for the film’s soundtrack—and documented with cameras for the film itself. On one of those songs, “Cut Me Some Slack,” Grohl is wailing on the drums next to his former Nirvana bandmates Krist Novoselic and Pat Smear on bass and guitar. “I saw Krist bobbing up and down,” Grohl says in a voiceover, “and I thought, ‘This is just like Nirvana. Wait, Paul McCartney is here?’” The ex-Beatle was there, doing his best Little Richard imitation, and adding one more link to Grohl’s chain of connections.

The movie shown before Sound City was Imagine, a powerful picture directed by Poland’s Andrzej Jakimowski and set in a residential school for the blind in Lisbon. This fictional feature revolved around a charismatic teacher (Edward Hogg) who urges the students to throw away their canes and learn to “see” and navigate the world solely by hearing and smelling. There are marvelous scenes of the youngsters expanding their sphere of awareness by learning to concentrate better on the clues available to them—and to us, thanks to close-ups and an inventive sound mix. But when the students suffer minor injuries from their experiments and the campus’s beautiful blind woman (the radiant Alexandra Maria Lara) catches the teacher in some lies, our feelings grow deeper and more complicated.

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