PARK CITY, UTAH: Dave Grohl is the first one to tell you that he is not a filmmaker. And yet, here he is at Sundance, chatting up the documentary Sound City, which marks his directorial debut. “I don’t even know what directing means,” he laughed at a press conference Monday. “I’m not a director. I’m not a drummer. I’m not a guitar player. I fake all of these things. I never took lessons to do any of this shit. I don’t know — I can’t read music. I hold my drumsticks backwards. I don’t know what a director is. But I do know, if you sit down with a clear idea of what you want to do, if it’s in your head and you can actualize it or visualize it… well, then, you wind up with something that makes sense.”
Sound City certainly makes sense. It is Grohl’s loving tribute to analog, in the specific form of the legendary Van Nuys recording studio of the title. It was a run-down joint, but one with an astonishing history, much of it thanks to the “Neve Console” that was its primary sound mixing board. There was just something about that board, Grohl’s movie explains, that made countless musicians their best selves, and Grohl managed to round up an all-star crew of interview subjects who recorded their seminal works there: Tom Petty, Stevie Nicks, Neil Young, John Fogerty, Trent Reznor, Metallica, even Barry Manilow and Rick Springfield. (Grohl’s no snob.) There was, however, one Sound City artist who they weren’t able to get:
Any good story needs a villain, and Sound City’s shows up about 45 minutes in: “Digital sound, an innovative technology that uses lasers!” The arrival of digital audio and compact discs has the same effect on Sound City’s narrative as VHS’s in Boogie Nights; it’s the end of an era. There’s a resurgence after Nirvana records Nevermind there, but the joint finally closed its doors in 2011 — though Grohl purchases that Neve Console and uses it to record an all-star album, which occupies the third act of the film (lovingly capturing the joy of musicians at work, trying things, grinding it out, failing and experimenting and finding the song).
Although the rise of the compact disc and the current reliance on ProTools, AutoTune, and the like paint a rather grim picture of the music industry in its current state, Sound City is ultimately a hopeful work. Grohl recognizes that technology may come and go, but the real power of music, the charge that it gives both the artist and the listener, is always present:
Sound City screens this week at the Sundance Film Festival. It hits VOD on February 1st.