War may be hell but it has surely inspired some glorious music. Marvin Gaye’s sublimely soulful What’s Going On, John Lennon’s dreamy anthem Imagine, The Who’s explosive rocker Won’t Get Fooled Again and Crosby Stills Nash and Young’s mournful protest song Ohio are artfully intercut with viscerally shocking footage of Vietnam firefights and brutally confrontational protest riots in the opening episode of Apple TV+’s new documentary series 1971: The Year That Music Changed Everything.
Throw in feminists confronting patriarchal bullying to the sound of Carole King’s It’s Too Late; civil rights marchers flashing black power salutes to Sly and the Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On; and a rainbow alliance of gay activists and freakish outsiders revelling in the transgressive possibilities of glam rock while getting it on to T Rex’s Get It On, and you can almost give credence to David Bowie’s grandiloquent statement that “we were creating the 21st century in 1971”.
Almost. 1971 was unarguably a great year for music. Bowie headlined the first Glastonbury Festival and recorded Hunky Dory; The Rolling Stones released Sticky Fingers and recorded Exile on Main Street; Carole King’s stratospheric albums sales for Tapestry gave focus to a burgeoning singer-songwriter movement starring the likes of Elton John, Joni Mitchell and Cat Stevens; Led Zeppelin, The Who and Black Sabbath created the heaviest rock ever heard, and socially conscious funk and soul arose from Marvin Gaye, Sly Stone, Curtis Mayfield, Stevie Wonder and Gil Scott-Heron. Of course, it was also the year of Osmondmania, but then, as Mormon teen pin up Donny Osmond says, contemplating the many febrile flash points dividing younger and older generations at the time: “Maybe (the world) needed a little more wholesome in 1971.”
Yet implicit in the rather silly title, The Year That Music Changed Everything is not really a music documentary at all. Rather it is a dense and flashy socio-political history of a particularly intense moment of cultural change in which pop played a significant role, sometimes as focal point, sometimes as a support system, but more generally simply as its soundtrack. Produced by the people behind multiple award-winning 2015 Amy Winehouse documentary Amy (including director Asif Kapadia), the eight-part series uses fantastic archive footage of some of the greatest pop stars of the era to illuminate and counterpoint the big issues of the day.
So you won’t find out much about how Phil Spector milked John Lennon’s vocal on his protest rocker Gimme Some Truth but you do learn about Lennon’s justified paranoia that he was being bugged by the US authorities, leading on to a fascinating section about anti-war activists audaciously burgling FBI offices during Muhammad Ali’s title fight with Joe Frazier in March 1971, all thrillingly intercut with Curtis Mayfield’s Underground, Miles Davis’s Right Off and Pink Floyd’s One of These Days.
Tellingly the first face you see on the zingy title credits is not a musician at all, but soon-to-be-disgraced President Richard Nixon. “If the music is square, it’s ‘cos I like it square,” America’s commander-in-chief smugly tells an audience at the White House as he introduces a performance by the resolutely middle-of-the-road Ray Conniff Singers. His smile freezes into bemusement as a pretty blonde backing vocalist in a pale blue gown holds up a banner reading STOP THE KILLING and coolly demands: “President Nixon, stop bombing human beings, animals and vegetation.”
With no direct narration, viewers are not specifically invited to contrast the bravery of this easy-listening protest with the actions of The Rolling Stones, whose own response to the tumultuous political events of the time was to head to the south of France as tax exiles and take as many drugs as they could get their hands on.
That is a story told across two episodes - End of the Acid Dream and Exile - dramatically focusing on the darker and less idealistic side of youth culture, referencing everything from the Charles Manson trial (which concluded in 1971) to the Vietnam Mai Lai massacre and notorious Stanford Prison experiment which led psychologist Philip Zimbardo to conclude that “in a battle between good and evil, it was the forces of evil that won". It is potentially disturbing stuff but when you’ve got the ineffably cool Keith Richards as your personification of junkie oblivion and The Stones playing the uproarious Happy on the soundtrack then, frankly, the moral of the story becomes a little vague.
More effective episodes focus on the black civil rights movement in the US (The Revolution Will Not Be Televised and Respect) and feminist empowerment (Our Time is Now). Although the focus is principally American, two episodes are set in a rather grey and tatty Britain, where the Oz magazine obscenity trial provides a central narrative to illustrate the core issue of generational conflict.
In fantastic archive footage edited with real panache, London businessmen in bowler hats confront a future of wing collars and glitter makeup with an almost Monty Python-esque surrealism while the energy of the film-making disguises connections that are often rather spurious. Series finale Starman flits about between The Who creating Baba O’Reilly, skinheads listening to reggae, the early days of electronic music in Berlin and Bowie dreaming up Ziggy Stardust, to promote the idea that 1971 shaped the music we are still listening to now. Yet it blurs over inconvenient facts such as Ziggy not actually appearing until 1972, Bob Marley taking reggae international in 1973 and Kraftwerk not breaking through as a fully electronic unit until 1974.
Throughout the series, the filmmakers play fast and loose with the timeline, blurring events to their own ends, and neglecting anyone who doesn’t fit the narrative or to whom they couldn’t get music rights (there is no Led Zeppelin, and no American Pie, the biggest hit of the year).
Nevertheless, the music is fantastic, the footage is generally superb, the editing is sharp and clever, and any music fan of a certain vintage should be happy just to strap in, turn up the volume, and turn back the clock to a time when pop still genuinely mattered. Good luck to any future film-makers trying to tell the story of our own tumultuous times through the songs of, say, Dua Lipa, Lewis Capaldi, Harry Styles and Megan Thee Stallion.
1971: The Year That Music Changed Everything is streaming on Apple TV+ from Friday 21 May