Dave Grohl appears to be the happiest — and perhaps luckiest — man in rock ’n’ roll. He was the drummer of the scene-changing Nirvana in 1991 and less than three years later, lead singer Kurt Cobain commits suicide, which effectively kills the band. But Grohl’s career doesn’t founder. He swaps drums for guitar, forms the Foo Fighters and becomes a popular Grammy-darling for 18 years and counting.
The good-natured rocker remains unflappable as a first-time director in his entertaining and informative documentary Sound City, a loving tribute to a defunct Van Nuys recording studio. Grohl succeeds in large part because his passion for handcrafted music and Sound City’s role in capturing that element in the pre-digital, pre-Auto Tune era is so endearing even a casual listener could be swept away by the stories in the film.
“The next 16 days changed my world,” Grohl says in the opening scene as he recreates a van ride from Seattle to the California studio with Nirvana band mates for the recording of Nevermind, an album that altered the sound of rock music for a generation.
Sound City was a dump — “It’s a s— hole,” says a grinning Kevin Cronin, front man for REO Speedwagon — but it was the ideal venue to craft meaty and muscular rock records. The studio was a squat warehouse with brown shag carpeting on the walls, ratty furniture and a parking lot that would flood into the halls. The studio opened in 1969, and its first clients included Charles Manson, who reportedly cut some tracks there before orchestrating the Tate-LaBianca murders, and Neil Young, who would pull up to the dive in a car that belched smoke, trailed by a convoy of cops.
But the studio didn’t become renowned until business partners Tom Skeeter and Joe Gottfried installed a Neve console in 1973. The recording board cost Sound City $76,000, more than double what Skeeter paid for his home. But the console captured drum sounds like no other and, as any recording engineer knows, the sound of your drums is the sound of your album.
Grohl tells the story of Sound City largely through detail-rich interviews with the players who were at the sessions for albums most responsible for the studio’s legacy: Fleetwood Mac’s eponymous American breakthrough album in 1975 and Nirvana’s Nevermind. The success of both LPs lured seminal rockers to the studio in hopes of capturing the sound and commercial magic behind these projects.
The first song recorded on the Neve, house producer Keith Olsen recounts, was Crying in the Night, sung by the female half of an obscure duo, Buckingham Nicks. The singer, Stevie Nicks, worked as a housekeeper for Olsen, while her boyfriend, Lindsey Buckingham, practiced his guitar. “I’m not going to be the maid for long, just so you know,” Nicks told everyone at the time. Those Buckingham Nicks sessions led to the pair joining Fleetwood Mac.
In the wake of Fleetwood Mac, the Neve recorded defining albums by Tom Petty, Foreigner, Pat Benatar, Rick Springfield, REO Speedwagon, Rage Against the Machine, Johnny Cash, Metallica and many others. The iconic Nevermind kept Sound City open as the analog studio had lost favor amid the late-’80s widespread adoption of digital recording. Even balladeer Barry Manilow, when he wanted a little muscle in his music, turned to Sound City once.
Grohl’s amiable persona attracted most of these artists to wax rhapsodically on camera. Finding Manilow in the same film as Lee Ving, the lead singer of punk band Fear, is a hoot, but to the film’s credit, both are treated with respect.
Sound City becomes as much about the Neve and the feel of warm, human musicianship in the analog realm as it is about the studio itself. Grohl’s bemused reaction as a dry Rupert Neve discusses the creation of his sound board in scientific terms proves priceless.
But that enthusiasm ultimately derails Sound City in its latter third, when Grohl devotes considerable screen time to the recording of new material on the Neve, which he purchased for his home studio when Sound City finally closed in 2011. Nicks, Springfield, Ving, Trent Reznor, Paul McCartney and others return to front the Foo Fighters or the surviving members of Nirvana to record a new album of raw rockers on the console. Alas, this portion of the film proves as tedious — real recording sessions tend to be dull — and should have been kept solely for DVD supplemental material.
Still, Grohl’s appreciation for the inhabitants of this dingy demimonde, from the artists to the secretaries at the front desk, makes Sound City an infectious and sincere Valentine to a rapidly disappearing art form.
Cast: Dave Grohl, Stevie Nicks, Tom Petty, Neil Young, Trent Reznor, Rick Rubin, Mick Fleetwood, Rick Springfield, Paul McCartney, Keith Olsen.
Director: Dave Grohl.
Screenwriter: Mark Monroe.
Producers: Dave Grohl, John Ramsey, James A. Rota.
A Roswell Films/Variance Films release. Running time: 108 minutes. Vulgar language. Plays Jan. 31-Feb. 3 in Miami-Dade only: O Cinema.