Dave Grohl is full of surprises. When he came from behind the Nirvana drum set to form the band Foo Fighters, not many expected his songwriting prowess. Few could predict the Foo Fighters’ consistency and longevity. And perhaps fewer still could envision Grohl in his roles for Sound City: Movie director, producer, and rock-solid documentarian. In telling the rollercoaster tale of the world-famous Sound City recording studio, Grohl brings a steamroller of pop and rock excitement — only to segue into an almost-tedious second half. It’s a mistake that makes Sound City a wondrous curiosity: an embraceable rock anthem of a movie that’s wildly imbalanced.
Grohl is the right guy to tell the Sound City story. The scrappy trio that made up Nirvana — Grohl, imposing bassist Krist Novoselic, and the gritty, moody Kurt Cobain — pulled into the once-revered dump of a studio with little cash and a small cache of songs to put onto two-inch tape in just 16 days. The result was Nevermind, an album that put a shift in the industry, and put Sound City on the map. Again.
In Grohl’s capable hands, we get the entire tale of this fairly unremarkable studio with the indefinable sound and unlikely success. All from the owners and staff, and the devoted employees who worked the dials, worked the bands, and worked their way up the music industry ladder. Anyone that ever dug 1970s Fleetwood Mac, 1980s Rick Springfield, or 1990s Rage Against the Machine will just eat this up. Name the musician, and he or she is interviewed here, from Barry Manilow to Lars Ulrich. The recollections and recordings deserve their own exhibit at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
This is far from some rickety episode of Behind the Music. Grohl, working with documentary writer Mark Monroe (The Cove), is a music fanatic, first and foremost. So we go far beyond Stevie Nicks cleaning houses for cash while recording Buckingham/Nicks. We examine why drum sets sounded so great in Sound City. We meet the guy who invented the studio’s famed mixing board. And we lament the loss of the magic that would occur when a band would have to play a single song straight through to record it until they got it right.
The once-electric lightning in a bottle of the Sound City studio actually gets a second act, and Grohl chronicles it in such detail it nearly takes the spark out of the film. Without giving away details, it involves a recent series of recording sessions with some true greats, showing the on-the-fly songwriting process and the primitive musical instincts that can arise. But that’s all Grohl does with the second half of Sound City. In relation to many music documentaries, it’s more than enough, a goldmine of rock-n-roll riches. But in comparison to the storytelling variety of the film’s first half, it could have you checking the clock.
Sure, Grohl’s loving it all, but there’s a point where the creative flow is simply not as interesting, based on your own tastes for the artists, the music, each song’s rhythms — elements Grohl seems to overlook. Each musician and new song gets roughly the same amount of screen time, and it shouldn’t, framing something historic into an unexpectedly rigid format.
It tarnishes Sound City’s 108 minutes but, man, not by much. If you can expect to bring some patience into the final half-hour or so, Grohl’s paean to rock recording is a gift to fans, a cinematic LP of sound and fury, both gleaming and grungy. To those who’ve already admired Grohl, that’s probably no surprise.