Sundance Review: 'Sound City'

The equivalent of “Side by Side” for B-sides, Dave Grohl’s “Sound City” takes a look at the rise and fall of the eponymous recording studio in the San Fernando Valley and the influence it had on modern rock ‘n’ roll before the digital revolution rendered it obsolete.

Started in 1969 by Joe Gottfried and Tom Skeeter, Sound City was a dumpy home to every band from CCR to BTO, from Neil Young to Nirvana, whose reputation grew in part thanks to its Neve Console, one of only four custom-made mixing boards in the world. It’s an object that Grohl shoots almost fetishistically, and it’s the perfect emblem of the affection for analog shared between him and interview subjects like Rick Springfield, Tom Petty, Neil Young, Barry Manilow, Stevie Nicks and Trent Reznor (positioned as one of few digital defenders).

Formerly of Nirvana and currently of the Foo Fighters, Grohl occasionally indulges in a welcome breakdown of rock fundamentals, claiming (perhaps inevitably) that the drummer is the backbone to any given band and that the acoustics of this space ideally accentuated this element. Otherwise, we’re given fairly straightforward talking-head accounts complemented with an increasing amount of archival material as the narrative progresses further towards the present, all coated in a VH1-suited slickness that belies the reported funk of the studio itself.

Fortunately, that slickness is in service of tales from some substantial musicians, whose anecdotes are fascinating more often than not and whose passion for the place and its once-vital function rival Grohl’s own. The first-time director smartly sees Sound City as a surrogate for the overall industry at any given point in the past four decades, and he varies the tone of the interviews from fondly-regarded serendipity -- Springfield would meet his wife there -- to deep-seated regret.

The film then closes with a jam session recorded at Grohl’s own place with the relocated Neve, a noble gesture that ends up going on for so long that it’s hard not to read it as a glorified plug for the upcoming album release in mid-March. 2008’s “It Might Get Loud” and 2010’s underseen “The Sun Came Out” took a similar tack right from the start and felt more like joyous celebrations as a result. “Sound City” doesn’t exactly derail at this junction -- especially not for rock fans -- but after bringing the past to such vivid life, this aside ultimately feels like Grohl feeding us just a bit too much dessert.

“Sound City” will play nationwide in a one-night-only event on January 31st before hitting select cities and iTunes starting on February 1st.

Grade: B-

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