Straight out of a roofraising debut at Sundance 2013 comes Dave Grohl’s exhilarating documentary about what makes life worth living. Hold up. I know Grohl’s film is actually a look at Sound City (1969 – 2011), a studio buried in a corner of Van Nuys, California, as it moves from legend to the analog boneyard. But the Foo Fighters frontman and former Nirvana drummer is up to something more than a nostalgia trip. He wants to celebrate the nondigital sweat that goes into making music. Archival footage takes Sound City from its 1970s glory days, when Fleetwood Mac recorded Rumours, through the 1980s, with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Rick Springfield and Santana, and the 1990s surge that came with the sound of Nirvana’s Nevermind. It wasn’t the plush atmosphere that drew the talent. The walls look like shag carpeting. As one musician put it, “You could piss in a corner and no one would notice.” What you would notice – and Grohl makes a major point of it – is the sight of musicians working and recording together in a scuzzy room of near-mystical acoustics. No computers. No digital. No Pro Tools or Auto-Tune. Just the astounding Neve mixing console.
Fears of a jerko tech session are unfounded. Even Grohl, in conversation with inventor Rupert Neve, looks hilariously dazed and confused as Neve rattles on like a textbook. A subtitle under Grohl’s head reads, “Jeez.”
Machines are not the turnon in Sound City. That would be the sweaty, messy, argumentative business of music. Grohl brings in a staggering array of rock royalty to pay tribute, from Stevie Nicks and Trent Reznor to Metallica’s Lars Ulrich and Fear’s Lee Ving. He shows how everyone who entered Sound City became a kind of family.
When Sound City closed, Grohl purchased the Neve console and moved it to his own studio, inviting his friends to join him in keeping the spirit of Sound City alive. This feeling reaches maximum intensity when Grohl icon Paul McCartney joins him to write and record. The soundtrack album, subtitled Real to Reel, includes the rabble-rousing “Cut Me Some Slack,” performed by McCartney, Grohl and former Nirvana bandmates Krist Novoselic and Pat Smear. As for accusations that Grohl made the movie as a marketing tool for the CD, cut him some slack. The recording sessions serve to bring the film’s message to vivid life. Grohl has made an intimate epic about music. But the film’s genius is the way it applies the lessons of Sound City to any job. “The human element,” says Grohl, “that’s what makes the magic.” In his directing debut, Grohl shows the instincts of a real filmmaker. Sound City hits you like a shot in the heart.