Reviewed by Mark Deming
In the first few minutes of the documentary Sound City, Dave Grohl talks nostalgically about leaving Seattle as a young man of 22 on a grand adventure, taking off in a beat-up van towards an uncertain but exciting destiny, and arriving at a dumpy-looking recording studio in Van Nuys, CA, where to his surprise, all of his dreams came true. That studio, Sound City, may not have looked like much on the outside (and the staff weren’t very good at housekeeping on the inside), but the main room had great acoustics, the employees were friendly, and the recording console made drums and guitars sound spectacular. Sixteen days after arriving, Grohl and his bandmates in Nirvana finished recording the album Nevermind, and the lives of the many people involved would never be the same. When Grohl talks about that summer in 1991, he clearly remembers hearing for the first time just how good his band could really be, and there’s a heady joy and awe in his voice. Twenty years, a stack of platinum records, and major-league rock stardom with the Foo Fighters haven’t dulled his sense of wonder a bit, and his excitement about the possibilities of the recording process has fueled his first foray into filmmaking, a documentary called Sound City.
Dave Grohl directed and produced Sound City as well as conducted the interviews, and he’s taken what could have been a very idiosyncratic look at the history of one recording studio and turned it into a fascinating, remarkably entertaining dissection of the creative process. Grohl finds some fascinating details in the nuts and bolts of Sound City’s story; the studio was run by Joe Gottfried and Tom Skeeter, two guys who wanted to start a record company and got into artist management. After a rough start, Skeeter ponied up $72,000 to buy a state-of-the-art recording console from Rupert Neve, a British electronics genius who built technologically advanced audio gear. (At one point, Neve sits with Grohl and discusses the particulars of the console, while in subtitles, Grohl reveals that as a high-school dropout he understands almost none of what Neve is saying.) As the equipment attracted new clients, producer Keith Olsen began working at Sound City and recorded the debut album for a pair of unknown musicians named Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham. While the album flopped, Olsen ended up introducing Buckingham to Mick Fleetwood, who was looking for a new guitarist and a place to record. Buckingham and Nicks joined Fleetwood Mac for the recording of their self-titled 1975 album at Sound City, and pop-music history was made. Gottfried also took over management of an actor and musician who had been struggling to make his mark for years; Gottfried teamed Rick Springfield up with producer Olsen, who cut “Jessie’s Girl” at Sound City and turned the soap-opera performer into a major star.
But while Grohl clearly enjoys the minutia of the Sound City story, and presents compelling and often hilarious interviews with dozens of musicians who recorded there over the years — ranging from Tom Petty and John Fogerty to Frank Black and Lee Ving — he also makes Sound City into an essay about the changing shape of popular music and the impact new technology has had on how musicians work. Sound City was an analog studio where musicians most often recorded live to two-inch tape and the nuance of a group performance was crucial. When digital recording came in, it became possible to manipulate audio elements with far greater ease, and people could make professional-sounding records at home on a laptop. But in the minds of most of the musicians Grohl talks to, something has been lost in an era of one-man bands manipulating data in Pro Tools. Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, a technology buff if ever there was one, even chimes in and says that while technology has improved by leaps and bounds over the last 30 years, the quality of music certainly has not.
In Dave Grohl’s mind, music is a very human creation, and that’s the idea that truly fuels Sound City. This is the story of how people make music; the technology certainly provides an assist, particularly that remarkable-sounding Neve console, but the most important part is what the artists put into it. Sound City celebrates the roles of all of the people who play a part in making a record, from the musicians to the folks who answered the phones at the studio (several Sound City clients sing the praises of office managers Shivaun O’Brien and Paula Salvatore), and for the last part of the film, Grohl lets us observe as he conducts sessions at Studio 606, his personal recording space that now houses the legendary Neve console from Sound City. While Grohl’s sessions with Stevie Nicks and Trent Reznor are fascinating, none are more entertaining than the day Paul McCartney comes by to jam with Grohl and his fellow Nirvana alumni Krist Novoselic and Pat Smear. While the guys are initially humbled to be recording with an actual Beatle, once the back-and-forth between the players begins, one sees that Sir Paul puts his pants on one leg at a time (musically speaking) like anyone else; as their ideas cohere into a hard-edged boogie called “Cut Me Some Slack,” the four men offer living proof of the true virtues of collaboration, which benefits the artist as well as the art.
Dave Grohl shares a lot of stories in Sound City, and what’s most impressive is that for a first-time filmmaker he tells these tales remarkably well. His natural enthusiasm for the material fills every frame, he reveals an easy give-and-take with the participants he interviews, and while at 107 minutes the film is long by the standards of a rock movie, the pace is brisk and it’s a great ride from beginning to end. You might not think a picture about a now-shuttered recording studio would be something compelling, but Grohl’s fascination with the folks who made magic happen at Sound City brings that same magic to the screen, and anyone who loves rock & roll and the people who make it ought to see this movie.