That Dave Grohl not only survived Nirvana, but in fact proved an impressively adaptable artist, is no small thing. His latest venture, a foray into documentary filmmaking, is Sound City, the celluloid biography of L.A.‘s storied Sound City Studios. Given Grohl’s reputation for versatility and decent taste, the film’s sturdy sense of forward motion may come as no surprise; a paean to those who have jammed, are jamming at present, or might jam there at some moment in the future, Sound City is more importantly a love letter to all things analog. The doc at times moves with the fast-cut freneticism of VH1’s Behind the Music, and there’s a solid 20-minute stretch of pure drum-gasm, but Grohl for the most part marshals his material with discipline—bringing some voluble big-name interviewees along for the ride.
Emphasizing the studio’s enduring shaggy-dog, familial vibe, Grohl leads us through the early years, when the building was, in Rick Springfield’s expression, “this ass-ugly complex in Van Nuys,” its walls resplendent in what appears to be brown shag carpet. The studio was indeed a collegial, fertile spot in the early ‘70s: Stevie Nicks and Lindsay Buckingham recorded their self-titled duo record at Sound City, which is how they met Mick Fleetwood; Springfield himself married the assistant of Paula Salvatore, the studio’s longtime manager. Album-cover montages take us through the Sound City greatest hits: Pat Benatar, Cheap Trick, REO Speedwagon, Foreigner, the Fleetwood crew. Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush was recorded there, as was the Grateful Dead’s Terrapin Station. The Pixies’ Frank Black tells the camera that for a period in the ‘90s, the studio “became the center of my life.” Even Charles Manson recorded an LP at Sound City shortly before abandoning the record business for mass murder. Oh, and the first time Tom Petty noodled around with the Heartbreakers? Sound City.
Much saliva is drooled over the Neve 8028 recording console (“Rupert Neve is a fucking genius,” Grohl notes after interviewing the distinguished engineer), and there’s a rather lengthy explanation of how a soundboard works. This is a film for audiophiles, as Young, a famously persnickety one himself, makes clear in his gleeful denunciation of the early hype over compact discs. There’s an impressive passage interweaving modern-day interviews with period clips of companies shilling for CDs (including one very corny “endorsement” from Leonard Nimoy), and soon we find ourselves in those thrilling but dark early days of sequencers and drum machines. As in a Scorsese mob flick, everything goes off the rails in the ‘80s. Springfield even ditches his Sound City manager for someone younger. (Granted, getting dumped by Rick Springfield was relatively common in ‘80s L.A.)
After an hour or so, the scrapbook approach and predictable moments of self-adulation become wearying, but a late-film chapter in which Paul McCartney appears, humbuckers in tow, to assume the Kurt Cobain role is both joyous and surreal. Watching Grohl and McCartney, two of the pro-iest pros in the business, work out a B section together is practically worth the price of admission. Surely a locus that makes possible such a collaboration merits a biography, and for all its kinks the film comes off equally friendly. In one interview, Barry Manilow describes the studio as “more family than any studio I’d been to.” Sound Studio‘s greatest success may be that it feels like a celluloid handshake—or at least an invitation to jam.