Rock musician Dave Grohl set out to make a recording studio the subject of his first-ever film. He was intrigued not only by the studio but by a specific piece of recording equipment — a 1970s era sound board — that captured every note of music made there.
Geek city, right? It sounds like an idea any sane moviegoer would run from.
Instead, "Sound City" offers a colorful piece of music history, a candid examination of changes wrought by technology and a defiant statement about not surrendering the human element in creativity. Grohl's rookie film made it to the Sundance movie festival, is being released theatrically Friday and is accompanied by an album featuring artists he interviewed.
"It honestly was more like a keg party with a camera than making a Hollywood film," he said.
Grohl knew nothing about the Sound City studio in Van Nuys, Calif., when he and fellow Nirvana members Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic booked a session to make "Nevermind" in 1991. Their California record company wanted Nirvana nearby to keep an eye on them and time at Sound City was cheap.
It was in a nondescript neighborhood and looked like a dump, with tired shag carpeting. Then Nirvana noticed all the gold records on the wall from artists who had recorded there: Fleetwood Mac, Tom Petty, Van Halen, REO Speedwagon, Guns 'n Roses, Neil Young, Cheap Trick, Slayer, Rick Springfield and more.
After plugging in their instruments and running through "In Bloom," Grohl and his mates discovered why. The sound, to their ears, was amazing. Nirvana had never been captured with such clarity and power before.
"You might have never heard of Nirvana if we had recorded in Hollywood with a fancy producer who made us sound like Def Leppard," he said. "The fact that that (sound) board made us sound like us is what people appreciated. To be reunited with it, honestly, it was like meeting your real parents for the first time."
Sound City owners bought the recording console designed by British engineer Rupert Neve for $76,000 at a time many houses cost half that. When Grohl inquired about buying it a few years ago, the studio operator then suggested she'd rather sell her grandmother. But Sound City closed and Grohl's wish came true (he won't say what he paid for it). The console is now in a studio that Grohl and his band, Foo Fighters, operate in the North Ridge section of Los Angeles.
Sound City became a hot studio after the modern incarnation of Fleetwood Mac was essentially born there, and Grohl's film includes vintage footage of a young Petty with his Heartbreakers.
"It was our home away from home," said Stevie Nicks. She recorded "Buckingham Nicks," her album with then-boyfriend Lindsey Buckingham, at Sound City, and met her current backup singer there in 1972. Nicks and Buckingham joined Fleetwood Mac soon after, and the album that propelled the band to stardom was made on the Neve console.
Seeing Grohl's movie, and the memories that came flooding back, made her cry, Nicks said.
Sound City struggled in the mid-1980s because technology led artists elsewhere, until Nirvana made it a mecca for a new generation. Now technology is so good that people can essentially record alone in their bedrooms, and they do. That doomed Sound City and many other studios.
As Mick Fleetwood says in "Sound City," just because you can record by yourself doesn't necessarily make it a great idea.
"When you get four different people, four different personalities, four different players in a room — that combination equals magic," Grohl said. "You can get the Beatles and you can get the Rolling Stones and you can get AC/DC. That happens because of people's imperfections and bad habits. That's what gives music personality, and that's what I think is exciting about music."
Grohl spoke while sitting in his studio, in a room filled with guitars and overlooking the sound board he reveres. Homework assignments of songs to learn for an upcoming Sundance appearance were listed on a sheet of paper for when Foo Fighters arrived later in the day, including some by Nicks and John Fogerty. "Can you believe it?" Grohl said. "I'm singing 'Stop Draggin' My Heart Around' with Stevie Nicks!"
There's no hiding the excited kid in Grohl's eyes when the film depicts him, Novoselic and Pat Smear jamming with Paul McCartney in the same studio. The collaboration resulted in a song, "Cut Me Some Slack," that they performed publicly at the Sandy benefit and on the new album.
Many people have wrongly interpreted his film to be anti-technology, Grohl said. "I'm not Amish," he said, noting he uses advanced recording equipment all the time. "Sound City" interviews Nine Inch Nails leader Trent Reznor as an example of a technical wizard who still benefits from collaborations.
"The intention was to inspire people to fall in love with the human element and the human process of making music," he said. "A lot of kids only hear music on their video games. A lot of kids only see singing contests on television. They don't know that you can buy a (lousy) guitar at a garage sale, and sit in your garage with your neighbor and write a song by yourself and suck. And then become the biggest band in the world. It happens that way."
Grohl's 6-year-old daughter recently asked her dad to listen to her play "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" on the violin. It sounded like someone strangling a goose while scratching nails down a chalkboard, he said.
To his daughter's ears, it was beautiful music.
Judging by "Sound City," it was to Grohl's, too.
Associated Press correspondent Natalie Rotman contributed to this report.
EDITOR'S NOTE — David Bauder can be reached at dbauder(at)ap.org and on Twitter (at)dbauder.