When read as a single list, the sheer number of musical titans that “1971: The Year That Music Changed Everything” addresses is staggering to take in full.
But over the course of the eight-episode season — all of which are available now on Apple TV+ — one thing that stands out even more than the ambitions of scale is how the world of 50 years ago absorbed some of the enduring songs and albums that still reverberate through the present day. Anchored by a strong collection of live performances, “1971” is an archival treasure trove, a good portion of that coming in the form of TV show spots where bands and artists introduced their newest hits to a captive audience.
“Apart from The Concert for Bangladesh, which was a technical nightmare for them to film, concert footage was actually really rare at that time,” producer and director Danielle Peck said.
“It’s more intimate as well, I think, than seeing someone performing to 50,000 people or 120,000 people,” director Asif Kapadia said. “There’s something about seeing them up close that works for this format almost better. And often, they’re being interviewed before, during, or after as well, which is all part of it. It’s a pivotal kind of way that people learned about artists.”
In turn, that also gives viewers of “1971” a chance to embrace a new way of hearing the tracks that have been etched as classics over decades of living room spins and radio airplay.
“You see the footage and really get inside their psyche and where they were at the time,” music supervisor Iain Cooke said. “The studio versions have generally been heard a lot. It’s really important as a documentary series to perhaps give people a different perspective on it. If they’re used to hearing the full studio version, being able to hear just a stripped back acoustic version, that fragility and brutal honesty comes through.”
The ambition of “1971” proved to be helpful in the long run. Using David Hepworth’s book “1971 – Never a Dull Moment: Rock’s Golden Year” as guide, the series follows major developments in the careers of mammoth music figures on opposite sides of their peak stardom. Gaining access to these major catalogues of recordings and rehearsal takes and concert performances was obviously crucial in telling as full a story as possible. Working at the beginning of the process, Cooke found that getting all of these estates to buy in to the process helped to prove that the scope was wide enough for everyone to be a part of.
“We were very fortunate that quite early on in the process, we did manage to get the blessing from the Stones and John Lennon’s and Marvin Gaye’s estates,” Cooke said. “It was just this giant jigsaw that you had to piece together bit by bit. One piece came out and another piece came in. There were sleepless nights and 4 a.m. wake-up moments. Luckily and thankfully, they came together, and that’s a testament to everyone involved.”
That interconnected nature reflects how all this music permeated the cultural consciousness of the day.
“One of the things we wanted to do is give an impression of all this happening all at the same time,” Peck said. “Lots of people make films about individual artists. But artists don’t work in isolation. They work in the context of the culture and the social landscape. Once you start thinking of them as a group of people, you can think about the world they’re inhabiting and working within.”
The other important piece of connective tissue for “1971” is a wide variety of both new and archival audio interviews with those closest to the making of this music and the ripple effects it had on an international scale. Peck said that the emphasis was on gaining the perspective of people who had experienced it for themselves, all the way from the series’ opening: Pretenders lead singer Chrissie Hynde reflecting on her memories of being at Kent State on the day National Guard soldiers shot and killed four students during an anti-war gathering.
All of this is woven together in a style reminiscent of Kapadia’s previous projects, including “Senna” and “Amy.” The years-long effort of assembling all that input ends up being a process of following ever-multiplying links in a growing chain.
“You have to trust your instincts and trust the process of how much time and money you have to put into research and getting a brilliant team and giving them the time to find material. The directors, to be able for them travel around the world to interview people talk to as many people as possible. When you speak to one person, they may connect you to another five people. Someone somewhere is going to have a cupboard full of material that no one’s seen,” Kapadia said.
That spirit of discovery also comes through in the documentary’s copious amount of media coverage taken from throughout the calendar year. Radio broadcasts, newspaper clippings, and local news highlights all put an emphasis on capturing the spirit of the moment rather than simply filtering it through people’s memories.
This comes across perhaps most strongly in the series’ fifth episode, which eventually shifts its gaze to the uprising at Attica Prison. In the aftermath of state police action that led to senseless bloodshed, one reporter’s response to new information is emotional and unguarded. Peck said that particular footage was a late entry into the episode, an example of the constant, ongoing search for new entry points into this year.
Though that particular sequence is just one in the sprawling web of “1971,” it’s a striking example of how much the past and present rhyme. Even with a half century of distance, the parallels between 1971 and 2021 were inescapable.
“You’ve got Gil Scott-Heron with ‘No Knock.’ Marvin Gaye in Episode 1 in ‘Inner City Blues’ talking about ‘Rockets, moonshots / Spend it on the have nots….This ain’t livin’.’ He talks about ‘Trigger-happy policing / Panic is spreading / God knows where we’re heading,'” Cooke said. “Jimmy Iovine talks about it in Episode 1: These albums are Trojan horses. They were highly political pieces wrapped up in beautiful music.”
“James Gay-Rees, the producer who found the book, started the project in 2016,” Kapadia said. “We were making the series and as it was being edited and we were out meeting and talking to people, everything going on in the world seemed absolutely relevant to the series that was initially set way in the past. That’s when you realize you’re on to something. That’s when what you’re dealing with is magic. Your instincts of why this is relevant are just becoming more and more clear every single day.”
“1971: The Year Music Changed Everything” is now available to stream on Apple TV+.