Dave Grohl’s credibility in the recording industry is without dispute. He first rose to prominence as the drummer for Nirvana in the early 1990s, then started his own band (The Foo Fighters) in the wake of lead singer Kurt Cobain's suicide. Named for the Los Angeles studio that produced some of the greatest albums of the '70s, '80s and '90s, "Sound City" is Grohl's tribute to the studio that gave birth to his career. Nirvana's breakout album, "Nevermind," was recorded there, even though the studio's outward (and inward) appearance made such a poor first impression that Grohl and his bandmates almost reconsidered.
“Sound City” is a fun ride for diehard fans of most any brand of rock and roll. Scored by the music it recorded and narrated by the artists it catered, an early rapid-fire montage of album covers would make you think every great record from the '70s to the '90s was recorded inside its dilapidated walls. Artists like Neil Young and Tom Petty take turns sharing tales from the good old days — such as how Lindsey Buckingham came across Mick Fleetwood listening to his solo album in one of the studios, which presumably led to the formation of the best-known lineup for Fleetwood Mac. And archival footage lets us behind the scenes to see the recording of some famous songs, as well as the heated fireworks that helped fuel them.
Along the way, the studio takes on a human quality, a hidden gem of acoustics masked in nasty carpet and old paint. Grohl’s attention to detail is hawkish, showing us the sweet spot for setting up the drum kit, and telling us about all the secretaries who worked the front desk, dodging advances from the musicians and using their own salaries to repaint the walls.
But every hero must have a nemesis, and Sound City’s analog protagonist meets its foe in the form of digital recording equipment. File footage from commercials celebrating the advances of CDs and music editing software are portrayed as the voice of doom, and even one of Sound City’s own architects leaves to start a digital studio next door. You get the feeling that "Sound City" was made for music fans whose fierce loyalty to vinyl wouldn't let them touch an iPod with a 10-foot pole.
Grohl's affection for his subject saturates almost every moment of the film’s 109-minute running time, which is unfortunately about 20 minutes too long. Once he is finished memorializing the studio — which officially closed as a commercial studio in 2011 — Grohl turns his attention to gathering some of the studio's former clients to produce a tribute album. But, what would have been perfect as a 10-minute crescendo, drags into a 30-plus minute tangent that makes you think you have moved on to a completely separate film.
For diehard music fans — the kind who are fine spending 15 minutes learning about the ins and outs of Sound City's famous mixing board — this is a forgivable sin. But even though there is something magical about seeing the two surviving members of Nirvana jamming with Paul McCartney, "Sound City" really is a little too much of a good thing.
"Sound City" has not been given an MPAA rating, but would no doubt receive an R due to the frequent use of the F-word. Historical photo montages also include glimpses of a wall covered with Playboy centerfolds, though oddly they chose to blur the nudity.
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who also teaches English Composition for Salt Lake Community College. You can see more of his work at www.woundedmosquito.com.