Dave Grohl
Credit: Sami Ansari

Sound City

Dave Grohl’s terrific new doc, Sound City, profiles the studio where some of the greatest music of the past four decades was born.

Dont’ be fooled: Dave Grohl may have billed his new documentary, Sound City, as a valentine to Sound City Studios in Van Nuys, Calif., and the analog sound that it championed. But this film is so much funnier and soapier than that description suggests, filled with great behind-the-music stories about Johnny Cash, Tom Petty, Nine Inch Nails, Grohl’s own band Nirvana, and countless other artists who recorded there. This was the place where Mick Fleetwood first heard Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham’s debut, Buckingham Nicks, and asked them to join Fleetwood Mac. This was also where Neil Young pulled into the parking lot, ready to record After the Gold Rush, with smoke billowing out the windows and two LAPD officers right behind him, guns drawn. ”I didn’t have a license,” says Young. ”I was Canadian. I wasn’t even supposed to be there.”

Even when Grohl does geek out about equipment, like the Neve 8078 mixing console that Nirvana used on Nevermind, he’s smart enough to joke about how dry these discussions can get. In one scene, Rupert Neve himself slowly explains how the thing works while Grohl stares blankly at the camera over subtitles that read: ”He must know I am a high school dropout.”

This obsession with Sound City’s vintage equipment underscores just how much the industry has changed since the studio opened in 1969. Today, recording is a far more solitary process, with musicians often capturing each track digitally on their home computers. But back when major labels could bankroll a lengthy studio visit, there was a certain social magic involved, too. Producer Ross Robinson brags about ratcheting up the intensity of Slipknot’s music by throwing potted plants at the band. And guitarist Neil Girardo reveals that Rick Springfield sicced his pit-bull terrier on Girardo’s crotch while recording ”Jessie’s Girl.” We’re left to wonder: Would that hook have sounded so urgent if that dog had to be Skyped in?

At times, Grohl’s allegiance to the old days and old ways feels reactionary. He’s even against using a click track, which is basically just a glorified metronome. When Nevermind producer Butch Vig forced him to use one, he says, ”I just felt like somebody stabbed me in the f — ing brain!” That’s strange for a fairly progressive guy who performed at the unveiling of the iPhone 5. The idea that digital recording, which is pretty cheap, might actually help struggling musicians is mentioned only once, by Black Rebel Motorcycle Club singer Robert Levon Been, and the fact that he’s sitting in a luxury car while making this argument doesn’t help. But by the end of the doc, when Grohl brings Paul McCartney and others back to Sound City to record new tracks, his devotion to the old studio with the shag carpet is touching. Just don’t remind him that you’re watching his film on iTunes. B+

Sound City
  • Movie
  • 108 minutes