‘It has stood the test of time’: was 1971 the greatest year in music?

In Asif Kapadia’s new Apple TV+ docuseries, the music of the year, and its cultural and political impact, receives much-deserved attention

Volume is paramount on the new Apple docuseries 1971: The Year That Music Changed Everything, both in the play-it-loud sense as well as the sheer-quantity sense. The watershed social and artistic moment explored across the eight episodes contained a staggering amount of genius, to the point that an interview quickly dissolves into the same awed name-cataloguing one might expect to hear around a college radio station or independent record shop.

“It’s a predictable answer,” executive producer James Gay-Rees tells the Guardian, “but my favorite is What’s Going On, really one of the greatest songs of all time.”

“We bought all the discussed records on vinyl, listened to them fully through as cohesive works, and at different times, different ones became my favorite,” explains episode director James Rogan. “I had a phase with Hunky Dory, one with Bill Withers’ Just As I Am. As single songs go, What’s Going On was massive for me as well.”

“We can’t get into a chat without the words Sly Stone,” pipes in full-series director Asif Kapadia, an Oscar-winner for his 2015 bio-doc on Amy Winehouse. “Curtis Mayfield, too. Isaac Hayes, with the theme from Shaft.”

“Gil Scott-Heron, Pieces of a Man.”

“Aretha Franklin’s recording of Bridge Over Troubled Water.”

“Tapestry, by Carole King.”

It’s easy to imagine them continuing this for several hours, probably with a case of beers and a good set of speakers.

But for all their open-hearted admiration, the brilliance of their new project lies in the discipline with which they channel that spirit of fandom into a more studied form of cultural anthropology. The vast purview of their chosen year – John Lennon moving to New York, the Stones shacking up in the south of France, the Concert for Bangladesh, Joni Mitchell releasing Blue, the list of key events seems to go on forever – forced them to consider more thoughtful, creative methods of organizing the material. Though they worked from the basis of David Hepworth’s book Never a Dull Moment, the creative team wanted to move away from his straightforward chronology toward a structure shaped by overarching themes.

“When we got into the research, it became apparent what a seminal, transitional year this was,” Gay-Rees says. “The 60s had ended so badly – Kent State, Altamont, Charles Manson, the Beatles breaking up. It felt like there was a tonal shift to this golden age of paranoia. We all did a lot of reading around it, we being a team of 15 people beyond us, all in an open-plan office kicking around ideas all the time.

“It became really exciting when we realized there might be a different way to approach a music documentary, because we didn’t want to do the Behind the Music type thing. There’s a place for that, but it’s not our specialty.”

From an intimidating treasure trove of preserved and recovered footage totaling hundreds and hundreds of hours, the directors assembled installments that play more like collage-style essays unconcerned with landing on a conclusive thesis. The narration refuses to take the viewer by the hand, instead presenting the audience with a set of points in time and letting us connect the dots for ourselves. A single episode might touch on topics as disparate as Neil Young’s counter-culture anthem Ohio, or Alice Cooper’s parent-riling shock tactics, or Earth, Wind & Fire’s funk landmark self-titled album, tacitly showing how they express shared or contradictory currents of public life.

The quest to address every last thing leads to some of the most edifying sections, when the outliers hitting No 1 get their moment; the squeaky-clean songwriting of the Osmonds channeled the conservative resistance to progress and change. The unexpected chart-topping success of the Jesus Christ Superstar double LP struck a chord with an unmoored generation looking for something to believe in. Their ambitions for comprehensive coverage demanded a soundtrack to match, a playlist collecting dozens of classics with astronomical licensing fees. The producers still can scarcely believe they pulled off a lineup of needle-drops that would make Martin Scorsese seethe with jealousy. “It’s worth saying that until we were a ways along with the edit, we didn’t know whether what we were doing would be possible,” Rogan says.

George Harrison and Ravi Shankar in the documentary series.
George Harrison and Ravi Shankar. Photograph: Apple

“We didn’t have a gargantuan amount of money to make the series with,” adds Gay-Rees. “It was a massive challenge, honestly. We dived right into the deep end. We’d tell the creative team regularly, ‘Don’t panic. Just go for the most creative version of each episode that you can, and leave the music to us.’ I said that in blind ignorance. At the time, I had no idea how we’d bring it all in.”

He took time to develop relationships to talent and the stewards of late greats’ estates, convincing many to lease out their songs for a nominal fee or free of charge. Once the producers had earned their subjects’ trust, even the most guarded legends recognized a noble goal worthy of their goodwill. “The Rolling Stones, John Lennon’s people?” he says. “They don’t need us. We’re not at the top of their to-do list, so you have to chip away.”

The series eschews the usual talking-head interview segments, instead jam-packing every episode with archival filmstrips from front to back. Snippets of disembodied voiceover blur the line between the excavated audio from the period and the soundbites the directors harvested themselves in the present day. As Kapadia would have it, the cohering effect was intentional. “We’ve been making archive-driven films for a while now, and the whole idea is to make everything feel like part of the same universe,” he says. “You shouldn’t be able to mark them, ‘Oh, that’s a period sample, and oh, that’s a contemporary one.’ The whole thing should be in the moment, 1971 as the present. We don’t cut from people now, older, to their younger beautiful selves. The whole thing is about being there, walking down the street in 1971.”

The directors reinforced that immersive effect by drawing not just on the year’s musical goings-on, but significant happenings from the world at large in conversation with the era’s pop culture. The filming of groundbreaking proto-reality program An American Family, with its disillusioning look at a marriage approaching full meltdown, corresponds to the personal intimacy of the singer-songwriter boom that included Mitchell, King and a fresh-faced lad named Elton John. The wrongful imprisonment and trial of Angela Davis inspires the unrest that gave us Gil Scott-Heron’s spoken-word protest pieces, and eventually the earliest strains of hip-hop. Nixon’s recommitment in Vietnam and declaration of a war on drugs, the Stanford prison experiment, the Ali-Frazier “Fight of the Century”, the premiere of the film adaptation of A Clockwork Orange, the Attica prison riot – it all figures in to the grand scheme of the zeitgeist.

Stones frontman Mick Jagger.
Stones frontman Mick Jagger. Photograph: Entertainment Pictures/Alamy Stock Photo

Though equal parts fond trip down memory lane and sobering generational analysis, the series is unambiguous about the once-in-a-lifetime excellence and vitality of the year’s musical output. It’s not just that an inordinate number of masters released major works, but that they had a lightning-bolt importance to their listeners, and the very fabric of American society. No matter how mega-famous its author, a new album in the world of 2021 just doesn’t have that caliber of seismic impact. On this point, Kapadia will say only, “I concur.”

Gay-Rees jumps in: “It sounds like such a bitter and twisted thing to say, like we’re just old people talking, but I can’t see them making films about today’s music in 50 years.”

Kapadia laughs. “You may want to retract that!” But with a second thought, he expands. “The songs, the records, they were the social media of the time. Writing them and playing them was how you expressed yourself to the world. It didn’t happen over Instagram with a photo of you in Dubai. You did it by creating a work of art that came from the heart. Along the way, it became a bit more about getting jumbo jets and how many followers you’ve got online. I know some musicians as celebrities without actually knowing any of their songs.”

“I love plenty of today’s music, I’m attuned to it through my wonderful teenage daughters,” Gay-Rees clarifies. “But I think there’s a reason why the music in 1971 has stood the test of time. This music is adopted by each new generation. Parents pass it down, or kids find it on their own. But either way, it survives.”

  • 1971: The Year That Music Changed Everything is now available on Apple TV+


Charles Bramesco

The GuardianTramp

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