‘1971: The Year That Music Changed Everything’ Filmmakers on Revisiting Rock and Soul’s Arguably Greatest Year

·23-min read

Was 1971 the best single year for recorded popular music, ever? Or merely the year in which it reached peak cultural significance? Maybe, just maybe, the answer could be: both. You’ll certainly be hard-pressed to come up with a better argument for another annum after watching all eight episodes of “1971: The Year That Music Changed Everything,” which just premiered on Apple TV Plus.

Let’s face it: Your well-considered alternate pick is going to have a hard time besting the year that generated Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” Carole King’s “Tapestry,” Joni Mitchell’s “Blue,” the Who’s “Who’s Next,” Elton John’s “Madman Across the Water,” T. Rex’s “Electric Warrior,” Bill Withers’ “Just as I Am,” the Rolling Stones’ “Sticky Fingers,” Sly and the Family Stone’s “There’s a Riot Goin’ On,” Pink Floyd’s “Meddle,” the Doors’ “L.A. Woman,” Janis Joplin’s “Pearl,” David Bowie’s “Hunky Dory,” Gil Scott-Heron’s “Pieces of a Man” and John Lennon’s “Imagine” — among others — in any kind of fair knife fight.

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The “1971: The Year That Music Changed Everything” filmmakers aren’t out to make a claim for supremacy, just relevancy… though it may be hard to make a case that, in rock and R&B, at least, the two don’t go hand in hand.

Variety spoke with five key creators of the sprawling, ambitious and highly satisfying series: series director Asif Kapadia, series producer Danielle Peck, director James Rogan, editor Chris King and executive producer James Gay-Rees. (Some of their additional credits overlap: Peck also directed some of the episodes, and Kapadia and King also are credited as executive producers.) If their names sound familiar, they should, to documentary buffs — the British-based filmmakers’ names are individually or collectively spread across the highly regarded projects “Amy,” “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” “Senna” and “Diego Maradona.” Excerpts from our conversations follow.

(Just to head off any complaints, beware that Apple’s “1971” series does include some of the music of 1970 and 1972, as well, and is not a stickler for excluding some relevant pieces that fall on one side or the other of the 12-month calendar.)

VARIETY: You must have felt you had a deadline to meet in the years you worked on this, because, in 2021, the 50th anniversary of 1971 makes for a nice round number. If you’re coming in and celebrating the 51st or 52nd anniversary of the year, that’s not as helpful.

ASIF KAPADIA: You know, I think many of us would’ve been happy if we’d come in at 48. But it just takes longer than anyone hopes and expects. So, yeah, luckily, it’s kind of fortuitous that it’s 50 and not 60. Obviously, that helps (the 50th anniversary angle), but it’s not the reason why people watch something. But it’s convenient. And it is special, actually, because you listen to the tracks and you can’t believe they’re 50 years old. This weekend, BBC radio here is doing a special on Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” because it’s the anniversary this weekend. (Gaye’s album came out May 21, 1971.) There are a hell of a lot of those anniversaries this year.

VARIETY: People try to make a case for the best year in film: 1939, 1967, 1974, what have you. There’s maybe less of that that goes on in music, but when it does, a lot of people pick a year from the late ‘60s. You’ve made a case for 1971 that’s hard to argue with, though.

KAPADIA: I can’t pretend to say it was my idea that we should do it because it’s the “best year ever.” I’m not a fan of that. I think that’ll be down to the audience to react. But there’s something to do with the ‘60s being killed off and making the turning point into the ‘70s that feels more like where we are now. Because the ‘60s don’t feel like the way we’re living right now. The beginning of the ‘70s leads to everything that we’re dealing with now and the artists we’re listening to now.

JAMES GAY-REES: When we first engaged with David Hepworth, who wrote the book “1971: Never a Dull Moment,” I remember him giving me the context of what was happening socially and politically that year, alongside which albums were coming out that year. It was a slightly jaw-dropping moment, because the list just seemed to never end. I couldn’t believe that all those records came out of that one year; some of these months, alone, are iconic moments for music. So there was the sheer volume of classic music that was coming out, but then it did beg the question of how we could make it feel like a proper audio-visual experience.

Having made a lot of archive films, I got very excited very quickly about how good the archive would look, because for my personal tastes, it’s the peak moment in fashion as well. It’s the end of the ‘60s, and it’s before the ‘70s gets too kind of garish. It’s a brilliant sort of tipping point in fashion as well. So if you’ve made as many archive films as Chris and I have, you start thinking, God, this could be a real gold rush here. And then as we got more into exploring the themes of the year, it became very apparent to us that there just were a lot of very resonant ideas that are still very resonant today that we thought would be really worthy of investigation. It was about this wonderful interplay between the music and the society of the time, and thinking. Why then? Why did music respond so vividly to what was going on in the world then in a way that music simply doesn’t really do anymore?

There’s obviously great music being made in the last 10, 20, 30, 40 years, but the music made in that particular year was a direct response to what was going on in society. And there was a real interplay between the two, and the music did in fact impact society, as well, as society impacting music. I don’t think that’s happened in that same way since then.

How did you diverge from David Hepworth’s source book?

KAPADIA: James Gay-Rees was the person who first mentioned a book to me and decided to option it. The book is chronological. Quite early on, Danielle Peck, who’s the series producer, had an instinct that we shouldn’t make it chronological and that we should break that up, and we should make (the episodes) thematic.

You have David Bowie’s voice over the opening credit montage in each episode saying, “We were creating the 21st century in 1971.” It’s interesting to have Bowie as part of this, since people really think more about him having his greatest impact from “Ziggy Stardust” on. When we think about ’71, we tend to think more about the earthy music still lingering from the ‘60s counterculture, not the in-some-ways flashier music about to come.

DANIELLE PECK: A lot of really excellent films have been made about Bowie. Finding a way of telling his 1971 story was really challenging, because he was pretty invisible in ’71, apart from one moment. He was going to New York to sign up with RCA and was taken to see Andy Warhol at the Factory, and that’s the only footage of him from ‘71. But we wanted to make his story of ‘71 really front and center, because it was the year that he blossomed and came out of his chrysalis. He’d been struggling for a long time with just “Space Oddity” as a hit, and then he disappeared again. And so telling his story, and we managed to get some interviews with other people that I hadn’t heard speak before, like his former manager, Tony Defries, and others.

The year is interesting, as you say, not just because of the sheer volume of classic music but because of the transitions that are happening. The hippie-dippy parts of the counterculture, with people putting flowers in their hair to go to San Francisco, are over, but the tough part of that remains, as the Vietnam war goes on and is still finding resistance in music. But then you’ve got the first stirrings of glam-rock, and maybe even the punk that would flower a few years later is a gleam in the eye of 1971.

PECK: Well, I think the last film in the series has got some really interesting crumbs that then throw forward into later on in the ‘70s and even the ‘80s. Reggae, for example — I mean, Bob Marley and the Wailers were already doing their thing in Jamaica, and it was being played in the homes and the dance halls of the Caribbean community living here at that time. But it wasn’t in the mainstream because the radio stations wouldn’t play it. We saw the beginnings of Kraftwerk as well and that movement and where that led to. And like you say, glam-rock. Marc Bolan, who never was as big in the States as he was in the U.K., became massive that year and broke the mold when he came on with a little bit of sparkle under his eyes and his shiny jackets. And then obviously that (movement) became massively flamboyant later on in the ‘70s. So there were so many things that were evolving.

But there were also things that were coming to an end or transitioning, like the Doors and the Stones. One of the (episodes) that I made with Chris is about the big artists of the ‘60s, and how they were trying to keep on inventing, or wanting to leave the scene. The Beatles had broken up prior to that, but legally they broke up on New Year’s Day, when Paul McCartney sort of served the divorce papers. You’ve got all these other giants of the ‘60s trying to find their way and work out what they’re going to do; they’ve been going at it now for quite a few years and they’re beginning to run a bit out of steam. You’ve got synthesizers coming in, at the same time the giants of the ‘60s are trying to work out what they’re going to do. And some of them not surviving very well.

GAY-REES: Yeah, there was a huge feeling of flux with everybody, whether it was a positive flux or a negative flux. Sly Stone had had enough of being Sly and the Family Stone by that stage and wasn’t happy anymore. It had all fallen into bits for him and he’d run away from San Francisco and holed himself up in a mansion in Bel Air. He was using a drum machine, actually, that year that “Family Affair” was released. That’s the first single, I think, that ever went to No. 1 made with a drum machine, and it had a sort of funk sound effect on it as well. So funk was beginning to blossom into something that was going to be a big dominant force throughout the ‘70s. Stevie Wonder and numerous other artists were beginning to use synthesizers, not just as some squiggly experimental thing that would be a soundtrack to an acid test, but in other genres of music. Now of course, synthesizers are ubiquitous everywhere, and you wouldn’t necessarily even know if an instrument was a synthesizer. That all started that year. And in (the James Rogan-directed episodes auguring for the birth of hip-hop), you have the combination of making direct speech about something, set to a relatively simple beat, which obviously is the beginning of the biggest form of music that we now know nowadays.

JAMES ROGAN: Yeah, the Last Poets had released their record in 1970 and it picked up steam in ’71, and Gil Scott-Heron recorded “Pieces of a Man” in ‘71. And in that you see the birth of a whole new form of form of music. That was also in relation to “What’s Going On.” I mean, Martha Reeves said to me, “You know, Berry Gordy had worried that Marvin Gaye was trying to do the Last Poets on Motown,” with “What’s Going On.” So you’d have Marvin Gaye listening to the Last Poets, and you’d have John Lennon listening to Marvin Gaye, and they’re all then feeding that music back into a kind of very volatile political environment, where Attica is taking place, where George Jackson is being killed, and where Aretha Franklin is offering bail for Angela Davis.

In February of ‘71, I thought it was always kind of a great, interesting parallel that, as Lennon is recording “Gimme Some Truth,” Nixon is putting tape recorders into the Oval Office, so he’s recording as well. So everyone’s kind of recording something! And they’re all kind of in this kind of melting pot of culture where this culture war is just at its kind of zenith, and the power of it is just overwhelming. Which is why the music still just pops. It’s so vital. When we (were researching), the records would come in as I ordered them, and I would listen to them on vinyl, and you’d just be completely blown away by how contemporary the sentiments were and how directly they were speaking to people. And you had to imagine people sitting back with their record player and getting that new record and putting it on, and it’s like: “This is ‘Tapestry,’ or this is the ‘Imagine’ album, or this is the ‘What’s Going On’ album,” and just sitting there and thinking, “Wow, this is what I’m living.”

With the amount of politically and socially conscious music you had to focus on and tie into contemporaneous events of the period, was it hard to find a place for the singer-songwriter music that was happening that wasn’t necessarily political but was just great — like, as you mentioned, “Tapestry”?

KAPADIA: I think they are connected, because even with the women singer-songwriters, they’re still speaking about their personal experiences in a way that maybe they didn’t get the opportunity to earlier, to speak and to put their personal diary or their life story on record… I think that in itself was quite a political act, actually, you know, to have control over what you sing and what you say and how you say it, and to create it for yourself. I think that that’s where Carole King and Janis Joplin and various other artists were really interesting. That was a kind of connection that I had after making “Amy.” I remember Amy Winehouse talking about the singer-songwriters that inspired her, people like Carole King. So after we’d made “Amy,” we’re then working on a series where I’m hearing Carole King talking about how she put her own personal story — she had a breakup, and it was very painful — and she put it into a record. And I just thought, this is all backdating me into understanding Amy Winehouse better.

As far as the original interviews you did go, are there any that stand out?

KAPADIA: The team would say that one of the most giving people was Elton John. Because quite a few people maybe don’t remember it very well, but he was one of the people that was really open and remembers everything — and was really great and very giving. Chrissie Hynde was another one that stood out, because she was there and experiencing what was going on around her (while she was a student at Kent State in the early ‘70s). So I’d say off the top of my head that they’re the two that probably stand out of the interviews that were done.

Even though part of the nature of what we tried to do in this mosaic — or tapestry, if you will — is to not highlight the contemporary interviews, but actually make them all just part of the mix. You know, somebody who spoke at the time and who was there and who isn’t around anymore is just as relevant as someone now that we met in person. And sometimes they’re more relevant, because they’re saying it in the moment, and they’re not looking back with 50 years having passed in between.

GAY-REES: Elton John can remember literally sort of every yard and every step when he first arrived in Los Angeles in 1970 or ’71 — just an incredible memory for detail, and also a massive music knowledge and a brilliant sense of that spider’s web of influences. That was a really, really fascinating interview.

PECK: I had some great encounters. I remember particularly Freddy Stone, Sly Stone’s brother. He’s now a pastor in the Bay area. The church where he has his pastorship is a very basic concrete block building, and we would meet in the back room trying to get the sound right, otherwise it would be too echo-y, and there were chickens scratching around in the back, while he was telling this extraordinary story, which actually I didn’t know about when I started working on this project. He was so evocative at the time, and so honest about what had happened, and I felt so privileged. That was one of the high points, with the details that he was willing to go into.

And some of them were just a joy. I mean, Donny Osmond was really a pleasure to interview. He started singing “Puppy Love” to me, and that was a surreal moment.

CHRIS KING: Yeah, there were numerous people, not just the musicians, who provided fascinating insights and actually steered the series into really different territory. Philip Zimbardo is the professor who came up with the Stanford Prison Experiment and now reflects quite ruefully on how that went and what he should and shouldn’t have done and what it meant to the wider world at the time. And he made links in his interview which generated a whole sequence where he was talking about a culture of violence, which he was beginning to see, and how his experiment fit into that.

You don’t have any narration and you don’t have any of the contemporary interviews on-screen — no talking heads, and no one even in voiceover tying it all together. How difficult is that to pull off?

KING: I don’t think there was ever a chance that there was going to be a curator or a voiceover. James Gay-Rees and I have made a number of films which are archive-based, in which we didn’t ever cut away from the contemporaneous archive to modern interviews. We definitely felt that the moment you cut away from 1971 to any of the interviewees now, you would see how old they are. (Viewers would think about how) time has taken its toll, or it would turn the whole exercise into a nostalgia thing of people looking back. We didn’t want to do that. We wanted it to feel like a lived experience again. Actually, most of the stories can tell themselves through the archives. You don’t need somebody to tell you what you’re looking at on the screen.

For people who were born at the time, they could just step back into that world. But for all those younger people who weren’t born or weren’t conscious at the time, we wanted to make it feel as resonant and immediate as if you were watching the news. So much of what was going on back then has such enormous resonances today that some of the interviews that were picked up by a news crew, you can imagine turning on CNN today and hearing exactly those words spoken about almost exactly the same issues.

GAY-REES: It’s a bit like how we put “Amy” together, whereby we used Amy’s music as narrative a lot of the time. And that certainly applies in several episodes here, where the music is literally delivering the narrative before your eyes as you’re watching the episode.

PECK: There are some fantastic moments. You think about “Evil” by Stevie Wonder, “I Just Want to See His Face” by the Stones, ”The Prisoner” by Gil Scott Heron — these were all used as narrative soundtracks. You didn’t need anything else.

KAPADIA: That is exactly what we’ve done with all of our previous work — the trilogy of films that we made with “Senna,” “Amy” and then “Amanda Donna.” Now, the first two films that I made in that trilogy, the lead characters were not alive. So rather than the films being made up of lots of other people giving an opinion, I was like, well, let’s go with that person’s opinion, or let’s research it and find the interviews that they said at the time, so they narrate their own life story, even though they’re not around. And that’s what we continue with this. I want Bill Withers talking. I want to hear John Lennon talking more than someone telling me what John Lennon did.

Was there any archive footage you were most excited to get?

PECK: George Harrison and the “Bangladesh” concert was a great joy and blessing when that arrived in the edit suite. Olivia Harrison was very generous. She wanted to do something with “The Concert for Bangladesh,” because it was going to be the 50th anniversary of George’s big concert, the first big charity concert of its kind, and it was just fantastic to find a great home for it, and to see it in a different way. Because it’s not new footage — it was made into a very successful documentary film — but for the anniversary of that, weaving these stories into the wider picture gives them a whole new context.

How challenging was it getting the rights to everything?

GAY-REES: Everything about this series was enormously challenging. … My job on the series was basically to tell people not to panic, because we could have completely lost our shit if we hadn’t been quite careful. Because it was like, “We’re never going to pull this off.” Because you’re dealing with the biggest artists of all time, probably at their peak. This is the crown jewels in all four corners of the musical world. I can’t really work out now in hindsight how we did put it off. … There was a lot of deep breathing and meditation, and it did take a humungous amount of time to make. I mean, Chris (King) and I have made many kind of films together – “Amy,” “Senna,” “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” “Diego Maradona” — and when you’re cutting all-archive, it takes about twice as long as it does to cut normal documentaries with just a bit of archive, because you don’t have the shortcut of a talking head or a voiceover. It’s like a huge patchwork quilt — six hours of patchwork quilt in this case. And you’re also dealing with the most expensive music of all time, probably, and some of the most expensive archive of all time. So it was a world-class challenge. But honestly, I’m more proud of this series than pretty much anything I’ve ever done. No one will ever really know how hard it was.

KAPADIA: Previously with “Amy,” we had a really good relationship with Universal Music. And so one of the things about doing the series was it’s only going to work if you can get the music and the publishing, and you need people who are understanding of the process of that. So partnering with Universal and Mercury, who we made “Amy” with, that was really one of the first conversations that James had was with the team there… You can’t do a series without the artists. You can’t do the series without the publishing and the music to make it fly. .

Universal controls the majority, maybe, of the master syncs you’ll need, but you’ve still got non-UMG artists, so does that get much more difficult?

KAPADIA: Even if they are Universal, it’s difficult, you know? Because you’ve got to remember, the artists are all amazing, and we’re living in a time and age where all of them deserve movies about them individually, or expect movies about them individually. Lots of them are having movies made about them. So it wasn’t easy.

Do you have any hopes younger artists will watch it and maybe be inspired to up their game?

KAPADIA: I’m secretly hoping. That’s one of the motivations behind the series. I’m seriously, secretly hoping that it will make people think and motivate and educate them. Bill Withers dies when you’re making it and you go, “Oh my God, I’m so glad he’s in the series, because he’s amazing. And what he did … I’m glad the series will exist to hopefully remind people of artists, some of whom are still very famous, but other people are not so well known and you should know who they are. I’ve got lots of young friends who are really into hip-hop and they don’t know who Gil Scott-Heron is, or they’ve never heard of the Last Poets. I’m like, God, you need to know. you’ve got to watch the series. You’ve got to understand where hip-hop came from, and how relevant it was 50 years ago.

For me is one of the most important things about the series is, as we were making the series, the world sort of spun around and almost became in sync with what we were making with the series. Not the other way around. You know, the series wasn’t motivated by the Black Lives Matter movement. We were in the middle of it when everything started happening, where you start looking at the president and you go, okay, this is exactly the same as everything I’m hearing from Nixon. Has anything improved or changed, when you see violence on the streets or you see people being attacked by the police or wherever it might be? That’s when you know this is relevant. In the very beginning, the series talks about the U.K. joining Europe, and here we are fighting to stay in Europe, some of us — and then you realize, this is really strange. And we need musicians now hopefully to stand up and to be willing to fight and to speak, whether it’s via their art or via the media, and talk about what’s going on around them right now.

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