The famous recording studio Sound City, located in the heart of the San Fernando Valley, is quite unimpressive on the outside, surrounded by other equally ramshackle-type warehouses. Point of fact, the inside is rather unimpressive too, unassuming is most every aspect except for the hilariously out-of-date shag carpet walls. But it was there that so much of rock history had its roots in, with so many classic albums from the likes of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers to Fleetwood Mac and Rick Springfield to Barry Manilow having laid down their music there, recorded on the lauded analog Neve mixing console. Dave Grohl, frontman for The Foo Fighters and former drummer of Nirvana, serves as both director and tour guide through this both awesome and delightful if-these-walls-could-talk, nostalgia-tripping documentary.
The heart of the film, though it is filled with plenty of fascinating technical factoids as well, is the behind-the-music stories that come from the people who used to walk its halls. The admiration for the technology is certainly at the forefront of the film and is more or less the whole reason the film is at all, but it’s the human stories that give it both life and balance. As such the frustrations with the music industry, arguments over artistry of analog recording and the cheapening of the sound and also musicianship, seem more grounded too. Finally here is proof that rock stars are just carefree but conscious too: listening to Neil Young pontificate on the intricacy of melodies and harmonies and other musicness becomes infinitely more worth listening too when you also get to hear about the time he was pulled over in the Sound City parking lot by the LAPD because he was both driving without a license and using his car as a hotbox; “I was Canadian,” Young laughs.
Sound City is most successful because, in the truest spirit of rock’n’roll, it never really takes itself too seriously. Sure it contains a number of relatively square history lessons not to mention all of the music and sound technicians geeking out over the equipment with geeky music nerd jargon that like any other language-specific conversation wanders into monotony – but Grohl clearly understands how boring this gets. During an interview with the soundboard’s designer Rupert Neve, Neve rattles through a hyper-specific explanation of the mechanics of the board while Grohl, though smiling, looks dumbfounded… and to put anyone, or more likely everyone, in the audience who is completely lost in translation at ease, thought-bubble subtitles pop up alongside Grohl’s giddy expression with silly phrases like, “[Neve] must know I am a high school dropout.” It also helps that City doesn’t end with the cliché looking-on-towards-the-future vagaries that most documentaries like this culminate with, but that’s not to say the narrative doesn’t come full circle. Once Grohl finishes the history lesson and the interviews he brings all of those rock legends back together to record new music all together, with the Neve console there to capture the magic. Grohl’s overwhelming feelings of total joy when Paul McCartney, who inspired young Grohl to become a rock musician in the first place, comes in to record a track with him is really the cherry on top of the cake. Plus the music is pretty rad too.