by Thom Yee

Sound City

Sound City images courtesy of Variance Films, Roswell Films, and Gravitas Ventures

Nostalgia is a hell of a thing.  It circles our minds, advises us on the seemingly wisest course of action, and occupies our thoughts as we pretend to transcend into the future.  It even drives large parts of our economy.

Nostalgia is all around us, everywhere.  We can deny its presence as we produce our important works in a vain attempt to do something new, but it’s always there for one simple reason:  we all want a do-over.  It’s the reason why we ask ourselves what we would do if we could go back — to a simpler time, to a happier time, to a more hopeful time where anything was possible.  And for a lot of us, the main thing we would do if we could go back is our damndest to stay there and not have to move forward.

Watching Sound City, it’s impossible to ignore all of these people — owners, producers, and sound engineers — so wrapped up in nostalgia, so ensconced in the recording studio that was Sound City, as they speak of this place they loved so much with tears in their eyes.  It’s easy to see the devastation that nostalgia wreaks, in this case, nostalgia for a time when music was recorded on tape and was, by most accounts, both objective and subjective, better.

I’m pretty comfortable with admitting that I don’t listen to music with any great appreciation.  I could say that that’s because society mostly uses music as background while it’s doing something else (like listening to the Rocky IV soundtrack while working out).  I can say that it’s because from an early age my parents were never around enough to influence me musically (like I blame my parents for everything else).  But if I’m being honest, I would have to admit that it’s probably because there is no functioning part of my brain that can properly think through how to create music.  I can’t connect on that primal level, so almost anything at all musically complex is so far beyond me that it’s hard to accept that it’s there at all.

And that’s why it’s important that I watched Sound City.  And that you watch Sound City.  And why it’s important that we all watch Sound City.  Because like all good art — spoken, written, or interpretive danced — the best music is great when we don’t want to think… but it’s even better when we do.

Dave Grohl

To me, Sound City represents… some sort of integrity. Like a truth. ~ Dave Grohl

For those that don’t know, Sound City was a Los Angeles recording studio founded in 1969 where some of the most seminal musical works of the 20th century were made.  The studio and its various producers played a key role in the development of the careers of musical acts like Neil Young, Johnny Cash, Fleetwood Mac, and Pat Benatar.  So you know, “all the best music of the 70s and 80s, all from one amazing studio.”  Sound City is also the studio where [the massively over-worshipped] Nirvana produced their breakout album, Nevermind.  Director Dave Grohl (former Nirvana drummer, and the evil and charismatic leader of the Foo Fighters) takes us through the establishment and history of a recording studio that was described as “trashed”, “a sh*thole”, and “just… a little… more… f*cked up than I thought it should be” by different musicians at various points through the film, but is still universally loved (in retrospect).

There’s a certain level of futility in describing Sound City, and reviewing a documentary doesn’t come as naturally to me as a piece of fiction.  So, like my last review (but for entirely different reasons), I’m going to ask you to take a look at the trailer for the film:

If there’s one thing that comes through pretty clearly throughout the film, it’s the mutual respect these artists have for each other.  Early on in the film, Slipknot’s Corey Taylor asked a simple question:  “Dude… how many f*cking amazing albums have been made there?”  And in my mind, even though he doesn’t say which albums he was referring to, it’s hard to connect Slipknot with other Sound City alumni like Foreigner or the musical works of Vincent Price.  The whole film really speaks to the admiration you can have for artists, regardless of your own appreciation of the individual art.

Lee Ving

In the studio, you’re trying to boost your own performance from the energy that you’re feeding from in your partners.  You can’t do that if you’re standing there alone. ~ Lee Ving

Though I’ve never self-identified as a “writer” (nor do I necessarily feel truly comfortable referring to musicians as “artists”), I am nevertheless enrolled in and soon to be graduating from a “professional writing” program and into the nebulous and poorly defined world of “communications”.  One thing I have observed, however, is how much my fellow writers seem to hate working together.  I’ve never really understood that, and as much as people always dread being given group assignments, I’m a firm believer that some of the best work I’ve produced in my post-secondary life has come as the result of combined efforts.  When it works, it really works, and you’re given one of those rare opportunities to connect with people, if for no other reason than… you have to.  You’re not given a choice.

Mick Fleetwood

I think the down side these days is thinking that “I can do this all on my own.”  Yes, you can do this all on your own, but you’ll be a much happier human being to do it with other human beings.  And I can guarantee you that. ~ Mick Fleetwood

That’s something that a lot of the musical acts featured throughout Sound City seem to understand.  Many of the artists are looking back to the works that they’ve become defined by, fully aware that those were the best times of their lives and that much of the reason for that is because they were with people they loved.  People they could play off of when they needed to, work with when they needed to be better, and be reassured by when they just weren’t sure.  What all artists are trying to do, what all people are trying to do regardless of artistic ability or merit, is tap into this construct, this unified field that we all know to be there even when we can’t see it and we’re unfortunate enough to not feel it.  This idea that surrounds us and penetrates us, that pushes us when we need it and prods us to greatness when we might not have gotten there ourselves.

John Fogerty

I heard some young guy in a band say, “Well you don’t have to practice anymore.  You just slice it up in the machine (meaning the computer) and it comes out perfectly.” ~ John Fogerty

What also comes through quite clearly is how technology has fundamentally changed the game. It’s easy to understand why anyone who’s gotten good at anything through hard work and effort would be resentful.  Like blogs did to journalism, like Photoshop did to photography, and like Pro Tools did to music, innovations have made it just a little too easy for people to share their “work”, express their “thoughts”, and show their “stuff”, even when it’s just more Instagrams of what they ate for dinner.  Sometimes you just want to scream at people:  “You don’t deserve this.  You haven’t earned it.  Now get out of bed, you can’t do any real work from there.”  It’s a sentiment that pervades the film and helps to give it the type of authenticity that it has.

Nick Raskulinecz

[about Pro Tools] … it’s kind of enabled people that have no business being in a band or the music industry to become stars. ~ Nick Raskulinecz




After watching Sound City, if there’s one thing I would encourage everyone to do, it would be to upgrade your sound system.  At no point in my life did I think I would call myself a Fleetwood Mac fan.  Or a Dio fan.  Or a f*cking REO Speedwagon fan.  But now I would at least consider those bands.  Since I was watching Sound City through a pretty good set of speakers, it’s easy to appreciate and sort of get into these songs I’ve only heard pieces of in cheesy Time Life commercials.  There’s a breakthrough role that music can play in each of our lives, and as much as I love technological innovation — 1,000 songs in your pocket, unlimited TV shows and movies for only eight bucks a month and all — there is so much you’ll miss listening to singles from iPhones off those iconic, sh*tty, white earbuds.

If by now you’ve picked up on the fact that I haven’t really talked that much about Sound City itself, then you’re right, I haven’t talked about the film that much.  Sound City is less a study of an odd, dumpy, and rarely cleaned recording space, and more an exploration of artistic integrity in general, in this case expressed through the lens of music as experienced by a select group at one little studio.

Weirdly, though, in one very important way, reviewing Sound City was just like reviewing A Good Day to Die Hard.  The last third of the film isn’t fundamentally more than an extended extra, made up of studio footage of the production of Real to Reel, the soundtrack for Sound City, produced on the original Neve mixing console used at Sound City for all those years.  Just like in the last Die Hard, it eventually becomes clear that the producers didn’t have enough story to fill an entire film.  In this case it’s a little more forgivable since Sound City is non-fiction, and it is kind of cool to see Dave Grohl work with Stevie Nicks, Josh Homme, and Paul McCartney among others, but it’s still disengaging to see such a large part of a documentary ostensibly about Sound City not have much to do with the studio itself.  As much as this may be the film’s only specific failing, it is a major one, and it pulls the final score down.

Josh Homme

It’s so hard to be understood in life, and that’s why when you meet someone where you understand each other, in that moment, you sort of want to hold onto it, you know? ~ Josh Homme

“What would you do if you could go back… and do it all over again?”  The great trick of that question, of course, is that it’s easy to forget just why you made those decisions — what motivations you had, what forces were in play, all conspiring to make you the person that you became.  The truth is, if you could go back and ask that girl out before someone else did or say something different in that interview to land that job or not read that review that was a big waste of time and barely talked about the subject, you would realize how little control you had over the things that mattered most to you.  And that’s really the message of Sound City, even if it doesn’t know it.  There isn’t one reason why that studio turned out so much of the most important music of the 20th century, it’s just how things happened and, perhaps, how they were meant to happen.  Sound City managed to tap into the connective field and produce works that really affected and continue to affect people, even if they had stupid titles like You Can Tune a Piano, but You Can’t Tuna Fish.  What happened at Sound City was simply the result of talented people working together to make magic, some of it grating (Rick Springfield), some of it depressing (Nirvana), and some of it great (Tom Petty).  And if those musicians, producers, owners, and engineers could go back, most of them wouldn’t do anything differently, because it wouldn’t have mattered — they would still be stars.

Sound City final score:  7.5