Simply listing the titles of the albums, classic and otherwise, made at Sound City tells a story. And it’s an impressive story given that just a fraction of that list includes Nirvana’s “Nevermind,” Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ “Damn the Torpedoes,” Rick Springfield’s “Working Class Dog,” Pat Benatar’s “Crimes of Passion,” Dio’s “Holy Diver,” Weezer’s “Pinkerton,” and Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush.”
When the Van Nuys, Calif., studio was set to close in 2011, after 40 years of rock history-making, Dave Grohl made three decisions: to buy the recording console from the studio, to make new music on said console, and to flesh out the story of Sound City in a way that’s only hinted at by its album titles.
The glorious result of those decisions is the endearingly earnest but totally rock ’n’ roll “Sound City,” directed by Grohl and out Tuesday on DVD and Blu-ray. Like the affably energetic Nirvana drummer-turned-Foo-Fighters-frontman himself, “Sound City” bounds off in several directions, telling a bunch of smaller stories along the way to telling the larger story of what it meant to record at the frankly cruddy-looking facility.
But the grimy environs — “It didn’t really feel like I wanted to sit on any of the furniture,” recalls super-producer Rick Rubin on the DVD — disguised a pristine heart in the form of a Neve recording console, about which the musicians and engineers that used it over the years speak with awe and wonder. “It looks like the Enterprise on steroids,” Young says of the once state-of-the-art analog board that was particularly adept at capturing great drum sounds.
(In one of the film’s humorous passages, designer Rupert Neve explains to Grohl the intricate mechanisms that make the board so appealing and Grohl provides thought bubbles about his inability to understand the jargon. He just knows the board sounds good.) In addition to the surroundings and the gear, Grohl tells the story of the people — the good-natured and ambitious owners, the tenacious and beautiful female managers, the scruffy runners and assistant engineers who would go on to become in-demand producers themselves — who became a second family to the musicians who recorded at the facility. Springfield even met his wife, Barbara, at the studio.
And the “Jessie’s Girl” singer is one of several artists spotlighted heavily in another strand of the film’s storytelling with musicians sharing anecdotes throughout. Springfield, who was actually managed by one of the studio’s co-owners, recalls how the in-house engineer Keith Olsen was never a fan of his guitar playing, so Benatar’s guitarist (and future husband) Neil Giraldo was called in to play on the iconic single.
In terms of a single band’s history, Sound City was perhaps most crucial to Fleetwood Mac, a band that wouldn’t have existed in its most famous iteration if Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks hadn’t recorded their first album there and Olsen hadn’t introduced the pair to Mick Fleetwood, who was looking for a place to make the band’s next record.
And just as that 1975 album helped put the studio on the map and attract major rock acts, so did Nirvana’s “Nevermind” help save the studio in the ’90s and reel in a new wave of modern rock bands like Rage Against the Machine and Tool.
The final piece of the film is about the way that Sound City lives on in Grohl’s own home setup Studio 606. He buys the Neve console and invites many of the former Sound City patrons, including Nicks, Springfield, and Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, to record new songs with himself and the other members of Foo Fighters and producer Butch Vig. (And, in the case of Paul McCartney, the other members of Nirvana.) All of the songs are available on a new companion CD “Sound City — Real to Reel” also out Tuesday.
For music geeks there’s a lot to love in “Sound City,” including vignettes that range from funny to surprisingly emotional. And there’s the simple but profound idea that a place can be both a physical location and a magical muse when it’s a space dedicated to creation.
Grohl’s enthusiasm leaps off the screen as he revisits his personal legacy and examines with equal energy how that legacy intersects with others in one of the shabby-but-venerable parishes of the church of rock ’n’ roll.Sarah Rodman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeRodman.