One of my favorite elements of Dave Grohl's documentary, Sound City, is how artists in the film—musicians, producers, engineers—attempt to define the indefinable. When a musician says, "I'm just not feeling" the music, what is that abstract sense they're talking about, exactly? Or, for example, what is it about music recorded with analog technology that makes it sound better? There aren't any correct answers to these questions, of course. And though it seems like a kind of distraction from the film for Grohl to attempt to pin these answers down, it still doesn't take away from the film's excellent achievement.
Sound City is Grohl's love letter to the studio that launched his career. Nirvana recorded its world-dominating second album, Nevermind, at the Van Nuys, Calif., facility and Grohl, the drummer, went on to be one of the music industry's biggest stars fronting the Foo Fighters. Grohl tells the story of how the studio was founded in 1969 when Tom Skeeter, an entrepreneur looking to break into the "entertainment business," threw his money behind studio owner Joe Gottfried. Skeeter's hope was to find success not just as a recording studio but in managing artists.
Success came shortly after 1972, when the studio paid $76,000 for a Neve 8028 analog mixing console, one of only four in the world and the only one built to custom specifications. For whatever inexplicable reason, the combination of that board and the rooms that comprised the Sound City facility created a distinct sound—particularly when it comes to drums—that many musicians said could not be matched anywhere.
In 1973, Mick Fleetwood was in Los Angeles looking for a studio. Touring Sound City, he heard a track from the first record recorded on the Neve console. When Fleetwood Mac's guitarist, Bob Welch, left the band, Fleetwood sought out the guitarist he'd heard on that track, Lindsey Buckingham, to fill the slot. Buckingham agreed, provided they also take on his "girlfriend," Stevie Nicks. The new lineup recorded the self-titled Fleetwood Mac album at Sound City, and the LP reached No. 1 on U.S. charts and sold over five million copies. The studio had its first hit.
The arc of the documentary follows the rise of the studio in the wake of its success with Fleetwood Mac, its fall in the 1980s as CDs and digital recording technology arrived on the scene, then its rise again with the success of Nirvana. Grohl does a fantastic job of tracking down bands who recorded there, as well as former employees, to talk about the "magic" of Sound City.
The final act—and I won't describe it here, because for some it could be something of a spoiler—is maybe the weakest. But even this section of the film offers gems that provide a window into the world of how artists work. That is the real strength of this film—the intimate look at a process that may seem like sorcery to the average music fan. There are the more recent clips of Grohl, Trent Reznor and Queens of the Stone Age frontman Josh Homme building a song together in studio. And there's actual footage of Rage Against the Machine recording its landmark first album live in the main room.
As a guy who has made music with friends for many, many hours in recording studios, the film hits me where my heart is when it comes to the creative process and how music should be recorded. Forget digital cutting and pasting. Forget perfect performances. I want bands live in a room, making music together, playing the songs as a unit to capture living, breathing, human performances. Other musicians and music geeks of similar values—those graybeards and kids digging through vinyl bins at record stores—will no doubt agree. The film is also a personal trip down memory lane, as the list of recordings at Sound City in the '70s and '80s essentially builds a playlist of my formative years. Post-Nirvana, records recorded there by other bands including Tool, Slipknot and Red Hot Chili Peppers equally inspired (for better or worse) an entirely different legion of musicians and fans.
I haven't been a fan of Grohl's music since the end of Nirvana, but I do respect how he's used his considerable influence in the industry. Sound City is nothing short of a gift to all of us who love music, particularly those of us who remember it as something other than an arena to make cash-generating stars out of bright-faced teenagers. I will be watching this film for years.
Sound City screens at the Top Hat for the Big Sky Documentary Film Series Mon., Sept. 16, at 8 PM. Free.