[This post originally appeared as part of Recommendation Machine, IndieWire’s daily TV picks feature.]
Where to Watch “Watch the Sound”: Apple TV+
Most music docs are, by their nature, lodged in the past. If people aren’t being shown a moment gone by, they’re talking about it or disputing it or presenting an alternative version. So when “Watch the Sound with Mark Ronson” takes the opportunity to use the past as a bridge to creating something new in the present, you can feel the overall temperature of the project change. With Ronson as the on-screen captain through specific topics in music history, this Apple TV+ show doesn’t always live in that present. But when it does, it’s enough to make you wish there were a dozen more shows trying the same thing.
In some ways, “Watch the Sound” gets some of the best of both worlds. There’s a certain vicarious thrill in reliving a lightbulb moment, so having legendary musicians reminisce about the inspiration for a riff or the thought process that led to using a particular piece of equipment still has power even if there’s no hard evidence of it happening. And “Watch the Sound” draws on the same fundamental idea as the Hulu doc “McCartney 3,2,1”: if you put that legendary musician behind a keyboard or a drum set or any other chosen instrument, you can see them recapture that fleeting spark of creativity in real time. (McCartney also appears here, which makes for a fun case study in how his responses change depending on the environment.)
“Watch the Sound” goes one step further in watching Ronson as both producer and performer, shepherding would-be hits of tomorrow and fanciful musical experiments in studios in a handful of time zones. It’s a blend of digital and analog approaches that’s partly a musician working in a creative constraint and partly an advertisement for Ronson’s produce-orial instincts. Even at its most packaged — for another point of comparison, see how “Watch the Sound” and “This is Pop” (now available on Netflix) each tackle the idea of AutoTune — these are still worthwhile peeks into the past, present, and future of how music gets made.
Ronson isn’t an expert interviewer, but he does have a palpable fascination with each of these episode topics. The animated intros to some of these episodes, setting up his childhood interests in drum machines or distortion pedals or synthesizers, can come across as a tad self-indulgent at times, but such is the nature of the creative process. He’s able to translate that into conversations with a wide swath of subjects, from electronic music pioneers to punk rock torchbearers to the rappers helping to mold today’s sonic landscape. The more specific that directors Morgan Neville, Mark Monroe, and Jason Zeldes get into the craft and tools of making music, the more engaging the show overall becomes.
There’s also an appreciation of history, told not just through musicians but through academics and other experts who are able to help add context to the quick-moving cycle of the kind of Artists You Should Know rundown that bigger music doc projects often include. That also extends to the scientific deep dives of the season’s third (and probably best) episode, covering the idea of reverb. Hopping through discussions of historical recording practices and then venturing on a trip to one of the world’s most acoustically ideal locations is the show’s ideal mix of theory, practice, and appreciation.
In a pairing of form and function, there are stretches of “Watch the Sound” that have interviews and melodies cut together like samples. They’re eased into the flow of the episodes in a way that it sometimes takes a few extra beats to register that you’re watching a documentary project explicitly make itself into a new song all its own. Pair that with the general glee of hearing Denzel Curry wax about Pantera or watching Angel Olsen tinker between takes or going crate-digging in Tokyo and it’s easy to want to see what this crew could do as a follow-up.
Pair It With: Hrishikesh Hirway is an on-camera contributor, so both the Netflix and podcast versions of his show “Song Exploder” are no-brainers here. But for another audio trip into the fine mechanics of music production, music theory, and just an overall flood of enthusiasm, Kirk Hamilton’s podcast “Strong Songs” offers a meticulous dissection of well-loved classics and some occasional off-the-board picks.