Recent documentaries Sound City and Side by Side examine analogue vs digital debate
Films from Dave Grohl and Keanu Reeves are actually about a lot more than music and film technology
The shift from analogue to digital in the making of music and film is addressed in two recent feature-length documentaries fronted by major players in their respective fields: the Dave Grohl-directed Sound City and Side By Side, presented and produced by Keanu Reeves. Despite appearances however, neither film is really about the technology.
Produced and presented by Keanu Reeves, Side By Side provides insight into the attitudes held towards digital technology by some of the most significant figures working in film today. Similarly, the Dave Grohl-directed Sound City, which takes the form of a love letter to the recently-closed LA recording studio of the same name, asks what the same technological shift from analogue to digital means for music.
In Grohl's case, there's an added personal thread to his film: Sound City is where Nirvana recorded Nevermind in 1991, in turn contributing to a change in fortune for the struggling studio. Crucially however, despite being loaded with archival footage from the historic recording sessions taking place there, Sound City strikes out beyond what would have been pretty comfortable 'classic albums' territory to remain in and explores the wider implications on music making that digital technology has had. So while veteran rock legends Neil Young, Stevie Nicks and Tom Petty are at hand to recount the great experiences they had recording there, the film also gives an honest account of consistently unstable financial side of the studio's story, making it more than just a sentimental look back at the good ol' days.
Grohl has previous form on the technology thing. His anti-computer tirade at the 2012 Grammys could have been more accurately aimed at the talentless rather than the tools, but for those in doubt, he reconfirmed his allegiance by describing the spirit of Sound City studios as 'about being badass and doing something real.' On one hand his film provides a welcome behind-the-scenes glimpse into how smelly and shambolic 'the place where the magic happens' can really be, but Sound City's occasional heavy handedness (the scene covering closures of the studio is soundtracked by Neil Young's 'It's over' refrain from 'Birds') also sets the tone to one of mourning rather than that of a celebration of the artistic impulse.
By comparison, the conclusions reached in Side in Side are more optimistic. What's interesting are the differing and distinct reasons filmmakers have for moving to digital. For David Lynch and Richard Linklater, not needing to change film reels every ten minutes helps them get better performances from their actors, a point reinforced by John Malkovich, who finds the frequent requisite breaks when working with celluloid an obstacle to remaining 'in the zone' and an unnatural fit for actors who learned their trade in theatre. For David Fincher, many of whose films (The Social Network, Zodiac) are known for their visual pallette, the deal-clincher was removal of the overnight wait for 'dailies' to be processed and the certainty provided by being able to watch captured material instantly. Similarly, Danny Boyle was evidently delighted to be able to disrupt the established pace of celluloid filmmaking, headhunting Dogme cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle for 28 Days Later, whose memorable scenes of a deserted London were made possible by digital cameras being cheap enough to use 15 at a time. As he puts it, 'There's a rhythm to using film which has been passed down since it began, and that the crews have learned. Digital cameras interrupted that – and I loved that freedom.'
Such is the enthusiasm of the digital converts in Side by Side, that when staunch defender of celluloid Christopher Nolan states that digital represents the 'devaluing of what we do as filmmakers,' it's hard not to suspect that he's objecting to a demystification of the dark arts aspect of filmmaking previously only knowable by a select few. For Lars Von Trier, it's all about this democratization. 'I hoped that these cameras would make a revolution. "Fuck film school - let's do it ourselves." We thought that a lot of talent could be freed by less respect.'
Although both Side by Side and Sound City purport to be about the transition from one technology to another, you get the impression that what's being mourned instead here by some is the passing of a simpler time when people supposedly cared more, collaborated more and had more expertise - with the optional conclusion from this point being that a compromise in quality of future output is inevitable. However, when the frequently-made point that democratization without 'tastemakers' can only lead to a deluge of the mediocre is made in Side by Side by Lorenzo di Bonaventura (who brought us GI Joe and Transformers), it's difficult to regard the old way as being inherently better. Similarly, the Sound City companion album (made by Grohl and Butch Vig on Sound City's mixing desk, which Grohl bought and rehoused on his own cavernous studio) may be heavy on high-profile collaborations, but is fairly pedestrian rock fare, however exquisitely recorded on vintage equipment the 'vibe' might be, with a sonic pallette pretty much unchanged since Led Zeppelin laid it out. Sound City studios also produced its fair share of entirely forgettable albums along the way, and although it's tempting to romanticize the creative process (which Sound City does in a wholly enjoyable way) it's also questionable how 'badass' it's possible to be when expressing yourself relies on having over $50,000 of record label money to pay for it.
What's clear from both these films is that it's a debate that doesn't have to be polarised, and that there's some middle ground worth exploring that balances talent, technology and production values. Appropriately enough, of all the contributors, it's probably Trent Reznor, an artist who has used the best of both analogue and digital technologies throughout his career, who comes out of Sound City best. 'Now that everyone is empowered with these tools to create stuff, has there been a lot more great shit coming out? Not really. You still have to have something to do with those tools. You should really try to have something to say.'
Sound City is out now on DVD, via iTunes and www.soundcitymovie.com
Side by Side is released on DVD Apr 15, and in iTunes now