“Sound City” is Dave Grohl’s offering to the Gods of Rock. It’s a beautiful, life-affirming film that honours both rock and roll itself, and one of its greatest temples. It highlights the importance of embracing the humanity at the heart of all timeless works of art. The concept of the film is simple: Sound City Studio was/is an amazing cathedral of music that allowed some of our greatest talents to create their most memorable work, but at various points in history the studio has been relegated or ignored. The fact that the studio came to exist purely by chance does not diminish its significance. On the contrary, it would seem to indicate that Fate itself had a role in creating one of the greatest recording studios of all time. This film is equal parts road movie, documentary, memoir, and rich man’s wish fulfillment. It traces the relatively mundane origins of the studio, courtesy of hilarious and captivating anecdotes by the likes of Neil Young, Tom Petty, and house producer Keith Olsen.
The audience is treated to a specific dissection of what made Sound City so special. It boils down to two things: the room, and the board. The room is positioned as a lucky miracle: it used to be an assembly factory for Vox amplifiers, and it was discovered that it just happened to have a massive drum sound. The board, however, was anything but a matter of chance. Hand-wired and built to Keith Olsen’s exact specifications at the Neve factory, this board was the sacred alter of California rock and roll in the seventies. In the film, there are montage sequences displaying all of the amazing albums that were cut in this studio: from Fleetwood Mac to Kyuss, and everything in between. The sheer number of legendary records created in this studio is mind-boggling. Famous musicians such as Tom Petty and production legends like Joe Barresi take us through the history of the studio, highlighting all of the occurrences and random coincidences that transformed the non-nondescript place into America’s most revered studio.
As technology marched on-wards and digital devices became the cornerstone of modern recording studios, Sound City began to fall on harder times. Despite its well-known pedigree, it came to be viewed as obsolete. Throughout the eighties, the studio became a haven for hair metal, until eventually it was rescued from the leather-and-Spandex crowd by a little-known band called Nirvana. And the rest, as the cliche goes, is history. Sound City once again became a great sonic temple. The odd thing is that, after all of this music history, the studio still apparently couldn’t make a serious go as a business, and was closed to the public for good a few years ago. It still exists apparently, but it is closed to the public and is no longer a functioning business. Mr. Grohl purchased the control board for his own personal studio, and set about making this film to honour the legacy of the studio that made him the rock star that he is today. The film is a plea for musicians to understand and respect the ritual spaces that have helped to shape their art form. In a modern context, recording can be done almost anywhere by anyone, which diminishes the importance of having a great room with a great board.
At this point, the film shifts and becomes Dave Grohl’s memoir, as he recounts the key event of his musical life and its connection to Sound City: namely, the recording of “Nevermind”. Butch Vig enters the picture to provide greater historical context and some great studio anecdotes, like Kurt laying flat on the floor to record “Something In The Way”. The final chapter of this movie is the wish fulfillment section. For the soundtrack, Grohl records new songs with a bunch of artists with connections to Sound City, including Lee Ving from Fear and the incomparable Stevie Nicks. And then Paul McCartney shows up. It’s true that the connection to the studio, and the original focus of the film, gets somewhat lost in this section. But what holds it all together is that the movie is really about Grohl and his connection to the place, so for it to end with a jam between the remaining members of Nirvana and McCartney is actually fitting. They are all survivors of bands who changed history. And in Grohl’s case, that might not have happened without Sound City.
Many of the great studios are now closed forever. Future generations of musicians need to understand that ritual spaces like great recording studios need to exist, even though recording can now be done almost anywhere. In the age of portable production, these special places become even more sacred and invaluable. Today’s young musicians, who’ve grown up recording in their bedrooms, might not understand the power and the magic of a truly great studio. The intangibility of it is what makes it so precious. The other stated goal of the film is to underscore the importance of the human element in the recording process; much time is spent in discussion with the engineers and studio managers who put their lives into the creations of others. In the end, “Sound City” is a tribute to the countless human variables that exist within the artistic process.
One final note: this film made me find respect for Rick Springfield (which is a sentence I never thought I would use).