An unlikely oasis amid an endless, dingy warren of Van Nuys, Calif., warehouses, Sound City was the birthplace of pivotal rock albums by the likes of Fleetwood Mac, Neil Young, Tom Petty and Nirvana, and possessed a freakish quality of sound and ambience that kept major musicians coming back for about 40 years. Trying to capture those qualities on screen is an elusive task, which is why director Dave Grohl -- onetime Nirvana drummer and frontman for the Foo Fighters -- goes overboard trying to convince his viewers of the wonderment that was Sound City.
Of course, anyone with a connection to the music of the various eras covered (the place closed in 2011) will respond to the enthusiasms of Petty, Young, producer Rick Rubin, Trent Reznor and Rick Springfield, and get a genuine sense of an abstract notion: Why a certain room -- unplanned, undersigned, boxlike and aesthetically repulsive -- could be the petri dish of so much influential rock.
Grohl doesn't dive too deeply into the technical aspects of acoustical science (although drummers will appreciate the emphasis placed on their instruments, and how they dictate whether a recording studio is good or not). More often, he focuses on the small stories behind particular albums -- Young's "After the Gold Rush," or Fleetwood Mac's "Rumours," or Nirvana's explosive "Nevermind," which in 1991 rescued Sound City from imminent closure -- and the film works well when it dwells in the personal and musical.
The catch is that the governing story is pretty thin -- Sound City arose out of virtually nothing, was saved by several well-timed smash-hit albums and then suffered a protracted death by digital. In fact, Grohl's purchase of the studio's analog mixing board served as the impetus for the film, and is central to its message that the state of recorded music is -- like the area that surrounded Sound City at its peak -- a soulless wasteland.
PLOT The story of Sound City, a dumpy, dingy San Fernando Valley music studio that birthed some of the most influential recordings of the past 40 years. Unrated
PLAYING AT Sag Harbor Cinema
BOTTOM LINE A cocky, affectionate and very musical documentary that may make its central point a few times too often.