The Neve 8028 analog mixing console occupies the same space in my imagination that one of the first Internet-ready computers -- you know, the ones that took up whole rooms at the Pentagon or in the wing of some dusty computer science building at a university in the 1970s -- does. It was state-of-the-art technology in its heyday, but when you've got iPads and DVRs and digital recording software it seems like a quaint hulking mass.
The Neve 8028 that was the beating heart of Southern California's Sound City Studios in the 1970s and 1980s certainly remains a sentinel for the coming technological advances that would change the music industry (and the rest of the world, if that's not being too melodramatic). But it is not just a milestone -- some marker -- in music history. It's more akin to the desk in the Oval Office. History happened on it, and so, in some small way, it is not merely something that peered at history as it passed by, but something that helped write it.
At least to begin with, the Neve that inhabited Sound City Studios is the star of Dave Grohl's documentary. It's easy to understand why. The Foo Fighters frontman and former Nirvana drummer owes much of his career to the console. For a pittance, Nevermind was recorded on it. Grohl is so fond of it that, when Sound City Studios shut its doors, he purchased it, installed it in his own recording studio and then set about making a film that reunited the Neve with many of the stars who once recorded on it.
Fleetwood Mac. Rick Springfield. Tom Petty. And on and on.
Even if you don't play an instrument or like all of the artists who appear in Sound City, it's hard not to be hooked by the curiosity the Neve provokes and wave after wave of musical royalty. Unfortunately, that spark flames out over the second half of the film, sputtering as Grohl meanders through the history of Sound City Studios, muses on difficulty of recording on analog vs. the ease of digital and somehow finds time to drag a Beatle into the mix.
None of the ideas explored are uninteresting. The decline and fall of a legendary recording studio is fascinating. The digital vs. analog debate is an interesting twist on the omnipresent discussion we as a society have as the development of technology rapidly outpaces our ability to comprehend its implications. (Grohl and his cohorts struck me as a bunch of Luddites wishing these damn digital kids would stay off their analog lawns, but did so in a totally charming way.) But none of these ideas are fully fleshed out, probably because they all have to sit alongside each other in a 108-minute feature.
Sound City is pleasant, and it is worth your time if you're a music fan, who, to borrow a sports phrase, enjoys a little inside baseball. But it isn't fully satisfying because it grasps at so many different threads and is unable to pull one out to the end.