The pandemic, it seems, has sent some enterprising music lovers into the editing rooms. For those still hesitant to come together for a live concert, the 2021 consolation prize was not a slew of fleeting livestreams, but a wave of clever and intentional musical documentaries that weren’t afraid to span two. time. With screen time begging to be filled, it was the year of deep diving.
These documentaries included a Beatles binge-watch at work in “The Beatles: Get Back” by Peter Jackson; a visual barrier to evoke a musical disturbance in “Velvet Underground” by Todd Haynes; sweeping comments at the top of the ecstatic 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival performances in Questlove’s “Summer of Soul (… Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)”; and a surprisingly candid chronicle of Billie Eilish’s whirlwind career – aged 16, 17 and 18 – in RJ Cutler’s “The World’s a Little Blurry”. The documentaries focused on reclaiming and recasting memory, on unexpected echoes through the decades, on transparency and the mysteries of artistic production.
They also recalled how rare hi-fi sound and images were in the analog age, and how ubiquitous they are. Half a century ago film and tape costs weren’t negligible, while posterity was a minor consideration. Living the moment seemed far more important than keeping track of it. It would be decades before “pictures or this didn’t happen”.
The Velvet Underground, in its early days, was both a soundtrack and a canvas for Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable, a club-sized multimedia event that projected images onto band members while they were playing. While the Velvets social ensemble includes many artists and filmmakers, apparently no one had the obvious idea of capturing a full Velvets performance in their prime. What a remarkable missed opportunity.
Haynes’ documentary creatively gathers circumstantial evidence instead. There are eyewitness memories (and only eyewitnesses, relief). And Haynes fills the lack of footage together with an overload of contemporary imagery, sometimes flickering wildly in a tiled screen that suggests Windows 10 is running wildly. Avant-garde news, commercials, and film clips sparkle alongside Warhol’s silent contemplations of the band members staring into the camera. The faces and the fragments are there, in a workaround that translates the distant blur of the 1960s into a digital grid of the 21st century.
Fortunately, there was more forethought in 1969, when Hal Tulchin rotated five video cameras at the Harlem Cultural Festival, which later became known as the “Black Woodstock”. New York City (and a sponsor, Maxwell House) presented a series of six free weekly concerts at Mount Morris Park (now Marcus Garvey Park) with lineup that seems almost miraculous now, including Stevie Wonder, Mahalia Jackson, Nina Simone , BB King, Sly and the Family Stone, and Mongo Santamaria, just to get started. The Tulchin team shot over 40 hours of footage, capturing the enthusiastic faces and righteous fashions of audiences as well as performers knocking out for an almost all-black crowd. Yet almost all of Tulchin’s material was not seen until Questlove finally put together “Summer of Soul”.
The music of “Summer of Soul” moves from top to top, with unstoppable rhythms, compelling vocals, spirited dance steps and urgent messages. But “Summer of Soul” doesn’t just revel in performance. Comments from festival-goers, artists, and observers (including definitive critic Greg Tate) provide the context for a festival that had the Black Panthers as its security, and which the city likely supported, in part, to divert energy. potential street protests after the 1968 turmoil.
Questlove’s subtitle and song choices – BB King singing about slavery, Ray Baretto proudly claiming a multiracial America, Nina Simone reciting “Backlash Blues,” Reverend Jesse Jackson preaching on the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, even the Fifth Dimension find anguish and redemption in “Let the Sunshine In” – make it clear that the performers were not offering evasion or complacency. After five decades in the archives, “Summer of Soul” is still relevant in 2021; it is anything but picturesque. Hoping that many more festival footage emerges; bring the extended version or the miniseries. An album of the soundtrack is due in January.
Cameras were filming constantly during the recording sessions of ‘Let It Be’, when the Beatles set themselves a weird and pipe-dreaming challenge in January 1969: to make an album quickly, on their own (although they eventually got the hang of it). ‘invaluable help from Billy Preston on keyboards), on camera and with a live show to follow. It was another way for The Beatles to announce things to come, as if they had imagined our digital age, when bands usually record videos while they work and upload work in progress updates to their fans. In the 1960s, recording studios were generally viewed as private workspaces, from which listeners would ultimately receive only the finished (vinyl) project. The “Let It Be” sessions represented a new transparency.
Its results, in 1970, were the album “Let It Be”, reworked by Phil Spector, and the austere and rambling 80-minute documentary “Let It Be” by director Michael Lindsay-Hogg – both a disappointment after the album “Abbey Road”, released in 1969 but recorded after the “Let It Be” sessions. The Beatles had announced their break with solo albums.
The three-part, eight-hour “Get Back” was perhaps closer to what the Beatles hoped to shoot in 1969. It’s a bit too long; I’ll never need to see another close-up of breakfast toast. But during all those hours of filming, Lindsay-Hogg’s cameras followed the group’s iterative and intuitive process of building Beatles songs: building and collapsing arrangements, playing Mad Libs with lyric syllables, recharging with old ones and jokes, having instruments in hand when inspiration strikes. Jackson’s definitive streak – the song “Get Back” emerging as Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr play one morning – fuses Laddish camaraderie with a deep artistic instinct.
“Get Back” recently revealed the situations the Beatles juggled in as they approached their self-imposed (then self-extended) deadline. They’ve gone from the acoustically inhospitable movie studios of Twickenham to a hastily assembled basement studio at Apple. They seriously thought about some absurd places – an amphitheater in Tripoli? a children’s hospital? – for the upcoming live show. There was so much tension that George Harrison left the group, only to reconcile and join them after a few days. During this time, they faced predatory coverage from the British tabloids. It is a miracle that they can concentrate on the music.
Yet, as established stars, the Beatles could work largely within their own protective bubble in 1969. Fast forward 50 years to “The World Is A Little Fuzzy,” and Billie Eilish faces the same pressures as the Beatles: songwriting, deadlines, performing live, press. But she also treats them as a teenager, at a time when there are cameras everywhere – even under her massage table – and when the Internet multiplies each visibility and each vector of attack. “I literally can’t have a bad time,” she realizes.
In “The World Is A Little Fuzzy,” Eilish performs in front of a huge crowd chanting every word, wins top awards at the 2019 Grammy Awards and receives a hug from her childhood pop idol, Justin Bieber. But as in his songs – melodious, whispered and often nightmarish – there is as much trauma as there are triumphs. Eilish also faces a torn ligament on stage, her recurring Tourette syndrome, video screen failure when she’s on the Coachella festival front page, listless boyfriend, insane interviewers, endless dating and constant questioning about accessibility versus integrity. It’s almost too much information. Yet in a few years or decades, who knows what an expanded version might add?