Film Review: Sound City

Dave Grohl proves that he really cooks, as a drummer <i>and </i>a filmmaker, with this loving doc about a legendary recording studio, one of the very best&#8212;and quite essential&#8212;movies about rock music ever made.

It was, to put it bluntly, a dump, so filthy and unkempt that, as one observer says, “You could probably take a piss there, wherever you wanted to”—and it was in the Valley. But Sound City was undoubtedly one of the most important recording studios in the history of rock music. Through its grimy portals came Neil Young, Fleetwood Mac, Trent Reznor, Tom Petty, Santana, The Grateful Dead, Foreigner, REO Speedwagon, Pat Benatar. Foreigner, Cheap Trick, Queens of the Stone Age and, his name mentioned with a kind of awe by his compatriots, Rick Springfield, as well as countless others, to do some of their very best work.

Dave Grohl’s deeply affectionate and informative documentary charts the history of the place, started in 1969 in Van Nuys, California, by an unlikely pair, Tom Skeeter and Joe Gottfried. Integral to the place and their vision was the Neve console, the ultimate mixing desk which cost Skeeter $76,000, twice as much as his own house. The uncannily authentic and resonantly intimate sound it captured was what brought such thrilling immediacy to so many classic albums in our collections.

Grohl’s rock-star status happily gained him access to lengthy, colorful interviews with most of the musicians (Stevie Nicks’ moments are particularly rewarding), and, just as importantly, many of the sound engineers and staff who toiled faithfully for the studio for years, without medical benefits, severance pay or pension plans. Paula Salvatore, longtime studio manager, emerges as something of a star herself, for the way she remains lovingly enshrined in all the rockers’ memories as half desirable hottie/half succoring Earth Mom. Springfield, whose immortal “Jessie’s Girl” is given almost as much focus here as it was in his own doc, An Affair of the Heart, was Gottfried’s especial protégé, and guiltily recalls the day he heartlessly and misguidedly switched managers.

As the reminiscences and essential, accessible technical info about the actual making of records floods in, Sound City becomes not just a major nostalgia trip, but one of the best docs ever made about rock music, told from a viscerally insider view. The monumental highs—Fleetwood Mac’s initial, dazzling success and Nirvana’s Nevermind—as well as the lows—those years in between when the industry changed with the introduction of CDs and technological innovations averse to Sound City’s down-to-earth ethos—are charted with memorable honesty and humor.

The present state of the music is more techno-driven than ever with the use of Auto-Tuning, click tracks and other devices which, according to Neil Young and others here, rob the work of its humanity and enable non-talents to thrive. Sadly, Sound City went under financially, but Grohl managed to buy the Neve, which he is determined to put to good and frequent use. The film ends with a rather extraneously long sequence of him recording new work with a variety of stars he brings together in his now Neve-graced studio. This new music cannot help but seem weaker than the thrilling, earlier stuff we’ve been hearing—Paul McCartney’s contribution sounds as if he made it up while sitting on the can in five minutes—but then Nicks’ piercingly identifiable, whining, fabulous drone of a voice hits your ears, and you realize once more what it—and, indeed, Sound City itself—was all about.