by Padraic Coffey
One could easily mistake the beginning of Sound City for that of a dramatic feature. Engineer James Brown silently enters what at first appears to be the eponymous studio, bulbs flickering to attention, the camera slowly panning across the formidable Neve 8028 analog mixing console to which many of the forthcoming artists will at least partially attribute their musical success. Within moments, the frame is filled by Dave Grohl – director and producer of the film – whose uncharacteristically gentle guitar-plucking and voiceover lead us into the opening credits. This documentary on the now-defunct Californian studio is clearly a labour of love for Grohl, who recorded breakthrough album Nevermind there with Nirvana in 1991. By its finale, admirers of rock music from any the past four decades will have found something about which to be grateful when it comes to Sound City.
Established in 1969 to capitalise on the billion dollar music industry, as represented by The Beatles and Elvis Presley, Sound City Studios was host to a plethora of talents, recording over 100 certified gold and platinum albums, before its closure in 2011. These ranged from the sublime (Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush) to the ridiculous (novelty records from Telly Savalas and Vincent Price). Though the film is very much Grohl’s pet project, he does not take centre stage, allowing an impressive array of talking heads to detail the studio’s story in chronological order, from its purchase by Tom Skeeter to the various tribulations it endured over the years. Fans of Fleetwood Mac – whose 2013 reunion tour sold out in a matter of minutes – will be particularly impressed by the story of Brit drummer Mick Fleetwood’s chance encounter with Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks at the studio in 1974, which led to the band’s unique Anglo-American composition and albums such as the beloved Rumours.
Other notables who feature include Tent Reznor, Lars Ulrich, Josh Homme, Frank Black, Rick Springfield and… ahem… Barry Manilow. Amidst these contemporarily-shot interviews, Grohl incorporates some choice behind-the-scenes footage. Anyone who ever wanted to see Tom Petty lose his temper can do so here. The studio’s incomparable reputation for quality percussion sound is tested in a brief high-energy montage of Grohl, Foo Fighters drummer Taylor Hawkins and other players behind the skins, while the oft-misunderstood role of the producer – be it Rick Rubin or Butch Vig – is also laid bare in the film. Lest fair-weather music fans expect an alienating dissection of the recording process, there is plenty of humour to be found in Sound City. Grohl’s discussion with legendary engineer Rupert Neve – in which the former’s insecure internal monologue is expressed via subtitles – is a hoot.
As with any film spanning several decades, a dramatic arc features, corresponding with the emergence of Compact Discs in the 1980s, which severely effected the relevance of analog tape. This eventually led to the popularity of DIY work stations such as Pro Tools and the death-knell of the studio. And yet, in the final act of the film, Grohl shifts the tone of Sound City from nostalgic retrospective to something much more animated. Purchasing the Neve Console for his own personal use, he assembles a team of Sound City veterans for a host of new recordings, as well as some very special unexpected guests. Who are they, you may wonder? Well, that would be spoiling the surprise…
Sound City is showing exclusively in the Light House Cinema on Saturday 9th March and then in limited release from 15th March.