Back to IndieWire

PBS and BBC Team Up for 3-Part Historical Documentary & Feature Film on the Birth of Modern Music (Watch Trailer)

PBS and BBC Team Up for 3-Part Historical Documentary & Feature Film on the Birth of Modern Music (Watch Trailer)

PBS and the BBC Arena today announced the production of “American Epic,” a 3-part historical documentary, and “The American Epic Sessions,” a feature-length film, executive produced by T Bone Burnett, Robert Redford and Jack White, which takes audiences on a journey across time, to the birth of modern music, “when the musical strands of a diverse nation first combined, sparking a cultural renaissance that forever transformed the future of music and the world,” says the press release.

Directed by British filmmakers, Bernard MacMahon and Allison McGourty, both will premiere in the USA and UK this fall.

In addition to the broadcast,”American Epic” will include companion music releases, featuring contemporary performances from Columbia Records, and archival recordings from Sony Music’s Legacy Recordings, featuring groundbreaking audio restoration of 1920s and 1930s recordings by Lo-Max Films, Nick Bergh and Peter Henderson. Third Man Records will release a deluxe box of vinyl records. 

Beginning in the late 1920s, when record company talent scouts toured America with a recording machine, and for the first time captured the raw expression of an emerging culture, democratized music production and gave a voice to the poorest in the nation, the filmmakers follow the recording machine’s trail across the United States to rediscover the families whose recordings would lead to the development of blues, country, gospel, Hawaiian, Cajun and folk music – without which there would be no rock, pop, R&B or hip hop today. 

Over 3 episodes the lives of these seminal musicians are revealed through previously unseen film footage, unpublished photographs, and exclusive interviews with some of the last living witnesses to that era.

For the feature film component, “The American Epic Sessions,” the filmmakers have re-assembled the recording machine, replicated the atmosphere of America’s seminal 1920s field recordings down to the smallest detail, with top American artists recording straight to wax, using all the original microphones, amplifiers, and other equipment from that era. This is the first time that any performer has been able to use this machinery for over 80 years. Led by producers Jack White and T Bone Burnett, today’s artists are given a once-in-a-lifetime chance to relive the experience of the founding mothers and fathers, their idols, and remake the music that changed America and changed the world.

“The American Epic Sessions” features performances by Alabama Shakes, The Americans, The Avett Brothers, Beck, Frank Fairfield, Ana Gabriel, Rhiannon Giddens, Merle Haggard, Bobby Ingano, Elton John, Auntie Geri Kuhia, Pokey LaFarge, Bettye LaVette, Los Lobos, Lost Bayou Ramblers, Taj Mahal, Steve Martin & Edie Brickell, Fred Martin and The Levite Camp, Ashley Monroe, Nas, Willie Nelson, Charlie Kaleo Oyama, Blind Boy Paxton, Raphael Saadiq, and Jack White.

Director Bernard MacMahon explained, “’American Epic’ is the story of one of the great moments in American history – when the voices of working people, minorities, and rural people throughout the country were first heard, and how the discovery of these artists forever changed the sound of American popular music and introduced new genres such as R&B, rock and country. It celebrates American technological innovation, diversity and freedom of speech.”

Producer and co-creator Allison McGourty added, “We traveled the length and breadth of America, from Cleveland, Ohio to the Gulf of Mexico, and from New York to Hawaii, in our quest to discover the identities and stories of America’s earliest recorded musicians.  We captured testimonials from the last living witnesses and direct descendants of America’s musical pioneers. This is the last time their story can be told before everyone who was there is gone.”

“This is America’s greatest untold story,” said Robert Redford, an Executive Producer.  “It’s an account of the cultural revolution that ultimately united a nation.”

“These musicians we profile are the real American heroes,” said T Bone Burnett, an Executive Producer. “They set out from the darkness with nothing but a guitar on their backs, put out their thumbs and conquered the world.”

Beth Hoppe, Chief Programming Executive and General Manager, General Audience Programming, PBS, said, “We wanted to share this uniquely American story with our audience because of its exploration and celebration of original forms of music and early technologies. PBS has broadcast concerts and documentaries about a diverse variety of music genres over the years, and ‘American Epic’ captures the foundation of American music history through the lens of some incredible untold stories.”

Anthony Wall, Executive Producer for the BBC ARENA said, “When Bernard and Allison took me through their ideas and research, I didn’t hesitate to say yes. Arena has always been committed to this music but ‘American Epic’ is the most comprehensive account of how and why it came to be recorded in the first place that I’ve encountered. The combination of the multi-ethnic context and acutely researched individual stories make it irresistible. The accompanying SESSIONS film is a delight. It’s a joy to see the respect and excitement so many of today’s best musicians bring to the discipline of recording in the same way as their heroes of decades ago.”

Funding for ‘American Epic’ is made possible by generous support from Anne Ray Charitable Trust. Funding is also provided by PBS and public television viewers.

The series will also be available on DVD and Blu-ray from PBS Distribution, as well as for digital download.

For more information on the overall initiative visit

Watch a trailer below:

Sign Up: Stay on top of the latest breaking film and TV news! Sign up for our Email Newsletters here.

This Article is related to: News and tagged , , ,