Sound City: Sundance Review

An exhilarating history of the studio that spawned countless rock classics, not to mention a welcome reminder to aspiring musicians to step away from the laptop once in a while.

Stevie Nicks, Neil Young, Tom Petty and Trent Reznor are among the many artists and producers reflecting on the contribution to American music of the Van Nuys studio in Dave Grohl's impassioned tribute.

PARK CITY – If you’re a first-time filmmaker celebrating the legacy of a legendary recording studio, it probably helps in terms of interview access and music rights to be a member of Nirvana and Foo Fighters. But Dave Grohl has more than clout in his corner in his terrifically entertaining documentary Sound City. He brings elements that can’t be faked -- passion and heart -- to this lovingly assembled insider account of what it feels like to make real handcrafted rock music.

Scheduled for simultaneous theatrical and VOD release Feb. 1, the film serves as an appetite-whetting sampler for the accompanying Butch Vig-produced all-star album of new material (due March 12 from Foo Fighters’ Roswell Records label), recorded using Sound City’s sacred Neve recording console.

A dump of a place opened in 1969 in Van Nuys, in the San Fernando Valley, Sound City is a squat, ugly building with shag carpeting on the walls and furniture you might think twice about sitting on. But the avuncular business partners behind the studio, Tom Skeeter and Joe Gottfried, were savvy about forging relationships with their artists.

Two breakout albums in particular lured a slew of major music figures to record there. The main body of Grohl’s film spans the distant peaks of those game-changers: the eponymous 1975 Fleetwood Mac album and Nirvana’s landmark 1991 release, Nevermind.

The earlier record marked the entry of Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham into the lineup of what was until then a blues band headed by Mick Fleetwood. The album’s giant success spawned a sustained wave of recording artists drawn by the wide-open sound of the studio, its sweet-spot drum acoustics and the magic of the Neve mixing desk -- one of only a handful like it in the world.

Custom-built in England, the tank-like console cost $76,000, double what Skeeter paid for his house at the time. Resident engineer-turned-producer Keith Olsen called it “the facilitator,” while Neil Young, who recorded much of After the Gold Rush at Sound City, describes the Neve as “mathematically crisp.” Given the widespread grieving for analog integrity in the processed digital age, it’s kind of touching to see producers and musicians from across decades and genres caressing this beast like it’s a holy altar.

Artists that followed Fleetwood Mac to Sound City included Santana, The Grateful Dead, Pat Benatar, Foreigner, Cheap Trick, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and REO Speedwagon. Grohl clearly develops a relaxed rapport with his interview subjects, coaxing engaging reflections out of Petty and Nicks, among many others. Rick Springfield reminisces about recording “Jessie’s Girl” there but also opens up and gets quietly emotional acknowledging his poor treatment of his mentor Gottfried.

There’s a ton of history here that will be catnip to Baby Boomer music fans, as well as those of the generation or two that followed; the wealth of choice archive footage and photographic material is slickly woven together by editor Paul Crowder (himself a former musician).

The influx of ‘80s hair bands kept Sound City kicking, along with punk outfits like Lee Ving’s Fear. But the advent of digital recording made the tape-based studio a dinosaur. The business was gasping for air when the virtually unknown members of Nirvana drove down from Washington state in a van (a journey re-created by Grohl at the start of the film) to spend 16 days recording Nevermind.

While this allows Grohl to position himself squarely within the studio’s fabled history, the I-was-there element never risks turning this into a vanity project. His respect and appreciation for the artists, engineers, producers and everyone else who worked the shabby rooms of Sound City make this a sincere tribute but also an infectiously inclusive one.

The wildly influential success of Nevermind gave the floundering studio a second wind, with bands such as Rage Against the Machine, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Nine Inch Nails and Queens of the Stone Age continuing the mini-rebellion against the Pro Tools revolution. During the same period, Johnny Cash also made his Unchained album there with producer Rick Rubin.

There’s considerable discussion, led by Grohl, of how digital recording sacrifices the vital human element of analog -- or, put more abstractly, the “feel.” His account of the way recording imperfections contributed to the bracing textures of Nevermind supports that charge.

Nirvana fans will eat up the footage and interviews dealing with the making of that classic, with particular attention paid to how the tracks “Lithium” and “Something in the Way” came together.

The inevitable end of Sound City, when it was no longer able to compete with the ease and cost-effectiveness of digital, is saluted with genuine emotion. In one of countless impeccable music choices on what is obviously a treasure-trove soundtrack, the studio’s demise is beautifully underscored by Young singing the broken refrain “It’s over” in “Birds.”

While the view here is definitely a biased one, rather than letting the film become simply a nostalgic eulogy for pre-digital rock, Grohl includes a mention or two of the positives of 21st century music technology. The most articulate defender of its precision and creative potential is Trent Reznor, though he concedes that laptop musicians who never do real studio time are missing out on something essential. Others are less charitable, saying that Pro Tools and Auto-Tune have enabled people with no business being in the music industry to become stars.

The film begins to feel a tad overlong in the closing half-hour devoted to the recording of new material on the Neve, which was purchased by Grohl and reassembled in his own studio. But the reappearance of Nicks, Springfield and Ving yields some great stuff. Even better is the unexpected raw energy generated by putting Grohl, Krist Novoselic and Pat Smear together in a room with Paul McCartney.