“Sound City” is Foo Fighter and die-hard fanboy Dave Grohl’s infectiously enthusiastic love letter to the San Fernando Valley studio where his first band, Nirvana, recorded “Nevermind,” and where a staggering roll call of other beloved rock classics were created over the decades. The pic draws upon numerous musicians, producers, engineers and staff to etch a vivid history; slightly long-winded but very well crafted, it’s is a cinch for long life in home formats. Simultaneous VOD and limited theatrical release at month’s end should stir excitement for a related all-star album coming out in spring.
Sound City was founded in the late 1960s by business partners who hoped to build a roster of artists and flourish as more than just a recording space. To that end, one of their first signings was the unknown duo of Lindsay Buckingham and Stevie Nicks, who recorded a fine eponymous LP that was dumped by its major label. But their affiliation with the studio got them introduced to and incorporated into the latest edition of hitherto blues-based Fleetwood Mac. The resulting 1975 “Rumors” was an all-time blockbuster that for a while made Sound City every recording artist’s first choice.
The list of hits wound up touching practically every A-list late-’70s rock act, from the Grateful Dead to Tom Petty to Foreigner and REO Speedwagon. In the ’80s, the studio’s hits included punk and hair metal. Much is made here of the qualities that made Sound City beloved — not its famously drab location or scuzzy decor, but rather the magical acoustics and an elaborate, unbeatable Neve Console board purchased at great expense in the early 1970s. Yet eventually, the rise of digital technology made the board seem a relic.
“Nevermind” (1991) briefly brought musicians back to Sound City in pursuit of a return to a more raw, analog sound. But in a business increasingly dominated by what the docu refers to as the “simulated, manipulated music” that software like Pro Tools and Auto-Tune enabled anyone to create — at comparatively scant cost — the stubbornly tape-based studio eventually had to shut down.
The pic’s inside-the-music tenor is unusually intimate, not just because we glimpse (in archival footage) and hear about the making of famous records, but because musicians talk about the minutae of their craft rather than their career arcs and personal lives. Thus they’re at their least guarded and most garrulous, with regular Sound City visitors Tom Petty, Stevie Nicks and Rick Springfield interviewed at candid length. The final half hour grows less engaging, however, becoming a more conventional making-of promo for the imminent album of new music Grohl and producer Butch Vig have recorded with various Sound City veterans. Admittedly, what we hear sounds terrific — including what’s doubtless the heaviest track ever that involves the director’s formative idol, Paul McCartney.
Though Grohl is famously affable, this docu could have used less of him, since he tends to repeat the same points (especially regarding the “human” qualities of analog vs. digital music). As a first-time feature director, however, he’s assembled a first-rate package, no doubt with considerable help from fellow musician-turned-editor Paul Crowder (“Dogtown and Z-Boys”). Sound quality, of course, is aces.