A must-see film for anyone who cares about recording techniques, equipment and studios, Dave Grohl’s ode to a shabby studio in the San Fernando Valley is detailed and loving in its exposition and final chapter of resolution. The tech talk in “Sound City” is quite specific, but ultimately the film celebrates the human element in recording. Like-minded musicians — all of whom recorded at Sound City — are gathered to draw their own connections to recorded music’s history.
Sound City opened in 1969 in a former Vox amplifier factory space and according to several artists who recorded there — Rick Springfield, Mick Fleetwood, Fear’s Lee Ving — it was never an inviting space. Generally unkempt with unattractive brown shag carpeting on the wall, “dumpy” is one of the friendlier descriptions of the place.
But by 1973 it had two selling points: A custom-built Neve 8028 console that cost $76,000 at a time when a house in the Valley ran about half that; and a room where drums sounded particularly well.
Starting with the first Fleetwood Mac album to feature Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham, Sound City became a mecca to rock bands. The Grateful Dead, Foreigner, Cheap Trick and REO Speedwagon recorded hit records at Sound City between 1977 and ’79; at the same time, Jimmy Iovine is captured wondering why in the world Tom Petty would want to record there.
It peaks in the early ’80s and goes into a decline as the owners failed to keep up with technology. It’s practically out of business when Nirvana wheels into town from Seattle, booked for 16 days at $600 a day to record “Nevermind.” The album’s success revived interest in the space for more than a decade.
The film’s conclusion concentrates on new recordings made at Grohl’s studio, which now houses the Neve console that he purchased in October 2011. RCA will release the soundtrack as “Sound City – Real to Reel” on March 12.
Anyone of the mindset that musicians need to know their history — who influenced whom, where were the great records made and who were the studio musicians involved — then “Sound City” is gospel as dots are connected between genres and eras. Grohl’s inexperience as a filmmaker only shows when the film makes a sharp turn out of history and into the more recent past: There’s a sense that instead of celebrating great rock ‘n’ roll moments, a product is about to be pitched at the viewer.
The presence of Paul McCartney and Trent Reznor, however, rescue the film for its final reel.
Director: Dave Grohl
Production/Distributor: Roswell Films/Variance Films
Producers: Grohl, John Ramsay, James A. Rota
Featuring: Paul McCartney, John Fogerty, Stevie Nicks, Trent Reznor
Running time: 106 minutes
Release dates: Jan. 31 theatrically; Feb. 1 digitally