"Sound City" is a movie that should have stopped short, only being a documentary. Instead, it tries to outdo itself with a last third act that is tacked clumsily and selfishly onto an ending that would have been perfect.
The film deals with a record studio known as Sound City, where legends were born. This is the studio where Fleetwood Mac was formed, where "Crying in the Night" was the first song recorded on the famous Neve Console, and where Nirvava sparked a fire that could not be put out.
The movie is directed by Dave Grohl (from Nirvana and the Foo Fighters) who has a special place in his heart for Sound City, probably because it jump-started his career.
Most of the movie is quite fascinating, learning the stories behind legendary songs and artists.
The studio became a record company just as a way to pay the bills, but no one was interested in Sound City. The building looked like it was the backend of some other store, in fact, at one point it was a boxing warehouse—the boxing room being noted for its unusually good drum recording quality.
In order to combat Beatlemania, Sound City had to use state of the art recording technology to gain an edge over the rest of the studios. Enter the Neve Console, a masterpiece of technology, revered and sought after.
It was specifically designed for Sound City and it was in this shabby looking building where platinum albums were created.
The movie tries to define the "human element" of music, as Dave Grohl puts it: the quality to music that makes you think that you can achieve what you hear on the radio. "Sound City" is also a love letter to recording studios and the musical work of yesteryear.
While the history is enthralling, Dave Grohl seems unsure of how to steer his project.
There are stories about Jimmy Iovine (known now for "American Idol") and his association with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Their song "Refuge" was made with Iovine's help. These were the days when a song had to be played through from start to finish, flawlessly. One of the band members sarcastically says that he thought there were 150 takes of "Refuge" before it was completed.
Still, Sound City needed money and the first real star they produced was Rick Springfield. In his interviews, Springfield has mellowed a little, sorry for the mistakes of his childhood and his involvement in the film could be just as penance of some kind.
Springfield was like a son to Joe Gottfried, one of the key men behind the curtain of Sound City.
When Springfield switched managers, it crushed Gottfried—Rick as a grown man lets the blame slide off his back by saying that he was talked into leaving by many people...maybe he was, maybe he wasn't. Whatever the reason, Grohl manages to capture the rawness and emotions that went into Sound City...if only it was left there.
Sound City started to flounder when CDs were released. Although biased, everyone interviewed for the movie agreed that the old way was better.
Now "Sound City" essentially is saying "there's no school like the old school"...yet again, if the movie stopped here it would be great.
Sound City's demise seemed inevitable, even after a brief bump that was given to them by Nirvana.
The last manager of Sound City made the bitter comment: "Sound City was a place that real men went to make records." The digital age was cruel to the studio and lots of money was lost because of it.
Then the last act of the movie—the part where it falls apart.
Dave Grohl wanted to make an album with many of the original people that recorded at Sound City—Stevie Nicks, Trent Reznor and the like. So he bought the Neve Console and moved it to his studio, Studio 606. The rest of the movie is a depressing music video.
The artists bemoan the music of the past and how no good music is coming out anymore—a common lie that has been beaten down many times.
Every year, brilliant new artists are risking everything they have for music—some of them make it, some of them don't. There have always been people famous for the sake of being famous—yet talent resides everywhere.
Just because they don't use the Neve Console, doesn't make them worthless.
Okay, I'm done venting.
Still, the movie should have ended with the emotional farewell to Sound City when it closed. Because if it did, the movie would have been about pioneers like Joe Gottfried instead of a piece of machinery like the Neve Console.
The movie searches for the human element—yet they might have found it in the humans themselves.
Score: 2 and a half stars out of 4