Movie Review: 'Sound City' captures heyday of a legendary LA music studio

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Tom Petty recalls that Jimmy Iovine, the producer, was horrified when he saw the dumpy studio with its gnarly furniture, secondhand equipment and brown shag carpeting on the walls.

In fact, his exact words were "someone should firebomb this [expletive] place."

They stuck it out, though, and emerged with one of the most popular albums of the late '70s, "Damn the Torpedoes."

It's one of a 100 or more classic albums produced at Sound City, the Los Angeles studio that is the subject of Dave Grohl's new documentary, showing Friday through Monday at the Melwood Screening Room, Oakland. It serves as a music-rich historical document and love letter to analog recording.

'Sound City'

3 stars = Good
Ratings explained

  • Starring:

    Dave Grohl, Paul McCartney, Fleetwood Mac, Tom Petty and more.

  • Rating:

    Unrated, but PG in nature.

Remarkably, Sound City, which opened in 1969, was the birthplace of Fleetwood Mac's "Fleetwood Mac" and Nirvana's "Nevermind," Neil Young's "After the Gold Rush" and Fear's "The Record," Rick Springfield's "Working Class Dog" and Rage Against the Machine's "Rage Against the Machine." Johnny Cash, Elton John, Elvis Costello, the Grateful Dead, Pat Benatar, Nine Inch Nails and Queens of the Stone Age are just a few of the artists who recorded there. Oh, and Vincent Price, Telly Savalas and Charles Manson.

Nirvana's Grohl rounds up Sound City's former owner Tom Skeeter, employees and finest alums, who tell their stories: how Neil Young first pulled up with a trail of police cars behind him; how Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks joined Fleetwood Mac there on the first day of 1975; how the Heartbreakers were thoroughly unprepared to record; how Butch Vig and Nirvana brought the place back to life in 1991 ("We chose Sound City because 'Nevermind' was recorded there," says Brad Wilk of Rage Against the Machine).

"You know, music isn't supposed to be perfect," Mr. Petty says. "It's all about people relating to each other and it really must come from the soul."

Something about Sound City, its staff, its two-inch tape and its Neve console bought for $75,175 brought that out in musicians.

In late 2011, though, digital recording was dealing the final death blow to Sound City.

"Most of the great studios have gone out of business," says Rick Rubin, who recorded Johnny Cash there, "and a lot of what you hear on the radio was made on people's laptops."

Mr. Grohl decided to take the biggest piece of Sound City home with him -- the console -- which he used to record a new album with a few of his Foo Fighters/Nirvana mates backing Paul McCartney, Stevie Nicks, Lee Ving, Rick Springfield and Josh Homme, among others.

The last section of the film captures the thrill of working with the Beatle and some of other stars to create that soundtrack.

Mr. Grohl explains why he found a new home for that analog artifact: "In this age of technology where we can simulate or manipulate anything, how do we retain that human element, how do we keep music to sound like people?"

His film is about a place -- a trashy one with a frequently flooded parking lot -- where the human element thrived.


Scott Mervis: or 412-263-2576.


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