Like many good ideas, the film “Sound City” started over barley and some hops.
Dave Grohl, former Nirvana drummer and now frontman of the Foo Fighters, had just purchased the custom Neve 8028 Console from Studio A of Sound City Studios, planning to install it at his private recording studio.
About two years ago, Grohl’s friend James Rota, of the band Fireball Ministry, helped Grohl move the massive board. The pair, both music geeks, rested and drank a few beers after the difficult transport. That’s when they began recalling all of the famous albums that had been recorded at Sound City Studios, which closed in 2011.
Grohl became more and more animated as they talked, Rota said. In honor of the 20th anniversary of Nirvana’s “Nevermind,” perhaps it would be fun to make a short film about the place where “Nevermind” — one of the most influential and important rock records ever — was recorded.
“He said, ‘Hey, you know how to make a movie,’ ” Rota recalled. It was true. To supplement his income, Rota was a production supervisor for films ranging from the “Chronicles of Narnia” franchise to the more recent movies “Parental Guidance” and “Chasing Mavericks.”
Over time, that small film grew and grew.
First-time director Grohl, now 43, calls the 106-minute documentary the most important thing he has ever done. “I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for that board,” Grohl said. “It’s a huge part of my life and history. It’s like being reunited with a family member.”
The film tells two stories tied with a common thread. The first story chronicles the story of Sound City Studios, the Van Nuys, Calif., recording studio that was the gestational partner for some of modern music’s most popular and critically acclaimed albums, ranging from Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumours” to Rage Against the Machine’s self-titled debut.
Opened in 1970, the old-fashioned analog studio closed in 2011 as high-tech, computer-assisted digital recording became the industry standard. “The studio has a Ripley’s Believe It or Not [story],” Grohl said. “People who casually listen to music never think about the room or the mixing console.”
The second story in the film focuses on Sound City’s analog console, which represents a dying ethic: people working with other people in a live setting, making music. It’s the antithesis to the contemporary music scene, where people make music in front of a computer. “Four people playing together — it’s hair-raising,” Grohl said.”That’s what makes magic.”
It’s the human element — not ProTools or digital recording — “that gives you the chills,” Grohl said.
Grohl contacted as many musicians as he could think of who shared his sentiment. Many legendary names ended up in the documentary: Trent Reznor, Mick Fleetwood, John Fogerty, Lindsey Buckingham, Tom Petty, Neil Young, Stevie Nicks, Foo Fighters’ Taylor Hawkins, Nirvana’s Pat Smear and Krist Novoselic, Metallica’s Lars Ulrich, Rage Against the Machine’s Tim Commerford and Brad Wilk, Queens of the Stone Age’s Joshua Homme and Alain Johannes, Ratt’s Stephen Pearcy and Warren DeMartini, Heaven and Hell’s Vinny Appice, Fear’s Lee Ving, The Pixies’ Frank Black, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club’s Robert Levon Been, Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo, Heartbreakers Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench, REO Speedwagon’s Kevin Cronin, Pat Benatar’s guitarist Neil Giraldo, Rick Springfield, Garbage man Butch Vig (producer of “Nevermind”), producer Rick Rubin and even Barry Manilow.
“The conversation got bigger and bigger,” Grohl said.
Slipknot and Stone Sour’s Corey Taylor was a willing interview subject, as Slipknot recorded its first album, “Iowa,” at Sound City. “It was really cool seeing [the console] again,” he said. “It was a hell of an experience.”
Taylor said he regularly gets into fights with people who insist that recording digitally is superior to analog recording — much as vinyl lovers fight with CD enthusiasts. “I’ve had vicious arguments with people about how infuriating Auto-tuning and pitch correction [affects] the sound,” Taylor said. “All that crap sucks the humanity out of it. The worst thing that ever happened was that anyone and their dog [can make a record].”
As passionate as Grohl became, he realized his limitations as a high-school dropout. So he enlisted Rota as a producer, who contacted his high-school buddy John Ramsay, an L.A.-based producer, who agreed to help with the project once he met Grohl.
“From day one, Dave was very clear about what he wanted to say about Sound City,” Ramsay said. ‘The place was very special for him. It was clear from the first meeting how big a deal it was, and how special this film would be.”
Just by looking at Foo Fighters’ body of work, Ramsay could tell that Grohl put his music where his mouth was, said the producer (whose father-in-law is Utah TV reporter Rod Decker). Foo Fighters’ most recent album, 2011’s “Wasting Light” (which won five Grammys and debuted at No. 1 in 11 countries), was recorded in Grohl’s garage with only analog equipment.
Mark Monroe was enlisted as the film’s writer, helping to structure the scenes and build a narrative arc. He’s written the award-winning documentaries “The Cove” and “The Pat Tillman Story” and has two other documentaries screening at this year’s Sundance Film Festival: “The Summit” and “Who is Dayani Cristal?” He, too, was impressed by Grohl’s fire.
“One thing about directing is that you have to communicate with others,” Monroe said. “Dave has that in spades. … You’re talking about a premier storyteller. In the first five minutes [of their meeting], he wanted to inspire people to play instruments and play them together.”
Here’s how Monroe summed up Grohl: “First-time filmmaker, longtime storyteller.”
Grohl was in a unique position to tell the story of the legendary studio, but he was grateful to find other voices. “I didn’t expect everyone to be as in love with Sound City as I did,” he said.
But the studio, tucked away behind train tracks and crumbling warehouses in the surface-of-the-sun-hot San Fernando Valley, represented what makes the heart of rock beat, a sound that continues on. “It’s not dead,” Grohl said.
Dave Grohl’s “Sound City” Players
Featuring • John Fogerty, Stevie Nicks, Dave Grohl, Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic; Cheap Trick’s Rick Nielsen; fellow Foo Fighters Chris Shiflett, Taylor Hawkins, Pat Smear (also of Nirvana) and Nate Mendel; Rick Springfield; Rage Against the Machine’s Brad Wilk; Slipknot’s Corey Taylor; Chris Goss; Alain Johannes; Fear’s Lee Ving; Jessy Greene, Rami Jaffee and more.
When • Friday, Jan. 18, 9 p.m.
Where • Park City Live, 427 Main St., Park City
Tickets • Sold out
Some albums recorded at Sound City Studios:
Nirvana • “Nevermind”
Fleetwood Mac •“Rumours” and “Fleetwood Mac”
Neil Young • “After the Gold Rush”
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers • “Damn the Torpedoes” and “Southern Accents”
Rage Against the Machine • “Rage Against the Machine”
Dr. John •“Dr. John’s Gumbo”
Johnny Cash • “Unchained”
Metallica • “Death Magnetic”
Nine Inch Nails • “The Slip” and “With Teeth”
Slipknot • “Iowa”
Weezer • “Pinkerton”
Tool • “Undertow”
Grateful Dead • “Terrapin Station”
Cheap Trick • “Heaven Tonight”
Foreigner •“Double Vision”
Red Hot Chili Peppers • “One Red Hot Minute”
The Black Crowes • “Amorica”
Blind Melon •“Blind Melon”
Carl Perkins •“Go Cat Go”
Josh Groban • “Illuminations”
Mastodon • “The Hunter”
Death Cab for Cutie • “Codes and Keys”
Jan. 18, 2:30 p.m. • The MARC, 1200 Little Kate Road, Park City
Jan. 19, 8:30 a.m. • Library Center Theatre, 1255 Park Ave., Park City
Jan. 19, 6 p.m. • Sundance Resort Screening Room, North Fork, Provo Canyon, Sundance Resort
Jan. 22, 6 p.m. • Salt Lake City Library Theatre, 210 E. 400 South, Salt Lake City
Jan. 24, 11:45 p.m. • Library Center Theatre, 1255 Park Ave., Park City
Jan. 27, 6 p.m. • Tower Theatre, 876 E. 900 South, Salt Lake City
— David Burger