Dave Grohl’s infamous speech at the 2012 Grammy Awards—in which he called for fewer computers and more hands-on instrumentation in the production of popular music—split the difference between idealistic call-to-arms and get-off-my-lawn rant. The documentary Sound City, Grohl’s directorial debut, expands on the sentiment behind his Grammys jeremiad. Using the salvaged analog soundboard from Sound City (the studio where most of Nirvana’s Nevermind was recorded, as well as classic albums by everyone from Johnny Cash to Metallica), Grohl turned Sound City’s soundtrack into something equally statement-making. With his own band as the backing group, the Foo Fighters frontman enlisted a wide range of stars to write and record new songs—in 24-hour marathon sessions—using the old soundboard that breathed life into so many historic works of music.
Sound City: Real To Reel is not destined to be one of those historic works. But it isn’t for a lack of legends. On “Cut Me Some Slack,” Paul McCartney sings over a righteous track of sludgy, psychedelic groove-metal—only he wheezes more than wails, especially as the song’s tunelessness turns into a limp pastiche of McCartney’s best-known foray into such sounds, The Beatles’ “Helter Skelter.” Stevie Nicks is more powerful on “You Can’t Fix This,” an otherwise dull song whose title might refer to Nicks’ gloriously corroded vocal cords. Of Grohl’s three collaborations with Queens Of The Stone Age’s Josh Homme, “Mantra” is the best, but that’s not saying much; with Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails in tow, Grohl and Homme start out hypnotic and wind up narcoleptic, in spite of an upward spiral of noise and snarl. “Time Slowing Down” is a chunk of generic post-grunge that shows just how little Grohl has in common with Rage Against The Machine’s Tim Commerford and Brad Wilk. Unsurprisingly, the chemistry is much more lively when Grohl flexes his power-pop chops, which he does with melody, muscle, and charisma on “The Man That Never Was” (with Rick Springfield) and “From Can To Can’t” (with Rick Nielsen of Cheap Trick).
Perhaps due to understandably lower expectations, Sound City has a better batting average when Grohl is collaborating with a lesser tier of legend—or with no legend at all. “Your Wife Is Calling” is a wiry, contorted, old-school rager led by Lee Ving of the veteran punk band Fear, whose gonzo sense of humor has turned hilariously avuncular in middle age. On “Heaven And All,” Grohl jams with members of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club to bash out something as belligerently droning as BMRC’s best work. And “If I Were Me” showcases Grohl on acoustic guitar and spooky, hushed vocals, backed by a pick-up group of session musicians—the result being not only downright spectral, but a tantalizing hint of what a Grohl solo album might someday sound like. The high points, though, accentuate the low, not to mention the fact that any album with a time-restrictive concept like Sound City is bound to be a mixed bag. But in one sense, the soundtrack wildly succeeds: Strictly sonically, it’s warm, organic, robust, and wholly human.