When you're Dave Grohl, a music-industry golden boy with vast connections to rock royalty, you can do whatever you want. Ergo, Sound City, the ex–Nirvana drummer/Foo Fighters frontman's directorial debut. Sound City is two-thirds history, one-third vanity project. It starts as an adoring portrait of a shabby-looking, analog-based Van Nuys studio that, against the odds, outshone nearly all of the fancily equipped rooms in the better parts of the LA area. Due to its magical Neve recording console and its role as springboard for Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks's (and later Fleetwood Mac's) superstardom, Sound City became legendary—especially for its amazing drum sound.
Described by musicians and producers who worked there as a dump in which most of the gear was secondhand, Sound City nevertheless was where platinum albums by Neil Young, Tom Petty, Rick Springfield, Cheap Trick, Pat Benatar, Rage Against the Machine, Nine Inch Nails, and Nirvana were made. (Oh, Charles Manson also recorded there.) In loving detail and with testimonials from a huge roll call of musicians, producers, and Sound City employees, Grohl tracks the studio's '70s heyday and its '80s decline. Pro Tools' industry dominance rendered Sound City temporarily irrelevant; even its head engineer, Keith Olsen, left and opened a sparkling new digital studio—right next door to Sound City. Burn! But when Nirvana cut Nevermind at SC with Butch Vig, it revitalized the company, and it remained an analog-loving musicians' paradise until it closed in 2011.
Late in the documentary, the film shifts into "Dave Grohl musical fantasy camp" mode, as he buys Sound City's Neve board and places it in his own studio. Grohl then invites several SC alumni to record new material with the Foo Fighters. Interspersed are paeans from Grohl and his buddies about the intangible "feel" that comes from humans laying down music together to two-inch tape—not exactly revelatory stuff. We see Grohl, Nicks, Paul McCartney, et al.—creating middling songs in real time, revealing a glimpse into how multimillionaires generate music. Listen closely and you can hear Jack White in the distance, giving Sound City two thumbs up.
This article has been updated since its original publication.