Thank God for Dave Grohl. Everyone’s favorite Foo Fighter and the most cheerful member of Nirvana, his irrepressible energy and sheer delight in rocking the F out shines during his loving remembrance of the legendary Los Angeles recording studio Sound City in his debut documentary feature of the same name. Ostensibly a memorial to the studio that spawned such albums as Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, the Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers catalog, and Nirvana’s Nevermind, among many, many other classic rock albums, the film also celebrates the craft and collaboration borne of this kind of specific recording process. And he trots out a Rock n' Roll Hall of Fame's worth of collaborators: Stevie Nicks, Rick Springfield, Tom Petty, Lee Ving of Fear, Trent Reznor, Josh Homme, Pat Smear, Butch Vig, and Paul McCartney, not to mention interviews with Neil Young, Rick Rubin, Mick Fleetwood, Lindsay Buckingham, Lars Ulrich, Brad Wilk, numerous record producers, and the former staff of the now shuttered Sound City.
Before all of that, though, Grohl sets out to tell the story of Sound City, the grubby little studio in the Valley that produced so many legendary albums. Grohl wants to know just what it is that that makes the sound that comes out of there so special. A former box factory turned into a recording studio in the late '60s, Sound City wasn’t designed to be sonically perfect, but the randomness of the layout and the big live recording room seemed to create a magical sweet spot for recording rock music, particularly drums. The custom-ordered, one-of-four-in-the-world, Rupert Neve-designed recording console also helps a bit too, every wire and knob laid carefully in place by hand. Spoiler alert: the console has now found a happy home in Grohl’s Studio 606.
The course of Sound City’s history can be mapped from the Buckingham Nicks album recorded there, which brought Buckingham and Fleetwood together when Fleetwood heard the tracks in the studio. That, of course, led to the recording of Rumours, and suddenly Sound City became the hot studio, recording albums by the Grateful Dead, Neil Young, Foreigner, REO Speedwagon and many more. Sound City owner Joe Gottfried took on a young Rick Springfield as a manager, and Sound City producer Keith Olsen helped him make “Jessie’s Girl” as iconic as it is today (with a little help from Pat Benatar’s guitar player Nick Giraldo). As digital technology dominated in the late '80s, Sound City declined, until a little band from Seattle pulled up in their van to record Nevermind, spawning another decade of bands making pilgrimages for that Sound City magic.
While the film revels in much audio engineering nerdery about sweet spots, mics, digital recording, Pro Tools, etc., the real element of recording music that Grohl emphasizes in proselytizing about the magic of the Sound City sound is the human one. Everyone from the receptionists to the runners had a hand in creating the environment where these albums were recorded, and the film lovingly pays tribute to all of them. The producers and engineers are also given their due as artists and craftsman, and the film presents the tape recording and editing process in an almost fetishistic manner. Yet, observing the true craftsmanship, skill, and labor that goes into the process makes you hear these great songs in a new way. These songs have an aura, and that’s what Grohl is trying to capture.
And capture he does, as the last part of the film is dedicated to his putting that Neve console to use with some of the legends who originally recorded on it. In this process, Grohl is showing how the musical sausage gets made; the starts and stops and experiments and improvisations that make a song what it is, why and how it can raise emotions, get stuck in your head or just excite a listener in some way. This is where he really shows that the “magic” of Sound City and the Neve console everyone mentions comes not from an ephemeral, mystical place but from the relationships and fellowship that this kind of recording enforces. The ability to be creative and flexible on the fly, but also to have to get it technically perfect as a band creates an alchemy with the mics and wires and knobs and faders and tapes to create those indelible sounds. While this portion of the film goes on a bit too long, and continues to restate its point repeatedly, it's hard to begrudge that of Grohl, who’s playing music with Paul McCartney, who got him into music, recording on the board that got him where he is today. They’re just having so much fun.
“Sound City” is a vibrant and vital tribute to a piece of recording and rock history that could have been lost to the ether, and Grohl packages the story of this little studio with a detailed celebration of the craft and skill necessary to this kind of recording, all with a killer soundtrack (which should go without saying). The film sets out to understand what makes it so magical, and during the journey, discovers that it was the people who were making the music all along. Be sure to have your Tom Petty, Nirvana or Fleetwood Mac albums ready for the ride home from the theater. [A-]
"Sound City" opens in limited release on February 1st and hits DVD along with the soundtrack on March 12th.