At the risk of broaching a slight spoiler alert, in the final of eight episodes of the remarkable new music doc series Soundbreaking: Stories from the Cutting Edge of Recorded Music, Sir George Martin offers a tidy summation: “We’ve had 100 years of recorded music, and we’ve seen its effect on people. It’s changed our lives.” St. Vincent seconds the motion, noting that “the power of music will always be massive.” True, that.
What makes these statements more than idle clichés is the seductive weight of evidence so beautifully produced and woven together in this panoramic PBS series. Directed by Jeff Dupre and Maro Chermayeff, Soundbreaking deftly assembles smartly edited archival material and footage with talking-head interviews with writers and musicians, including crisply edited wisdom from an articulate Jeff Beck, Brian Eno, DJ Spooky, Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich, Roger Waters, Rick Rubin, Annie Lennox, and countless others. The series has sufficient audacity and authority to claim “this is the story of popular music over the past century, in eight hours” (classical music is passed by, and jazz only briefly touched on, mostly in the form of Miles Davis’s iconic LP Kind of Blue).
For Beatle-maniacs alone, delving into the still-beguiling legacy and period minutiae of pop’s greatest band is worth the price of admission. Sir George Martin took this Liverpudlian band of untrained but ever-curious geniuses and upped the sophistication on their last handful of albums, with free experimentation, orchestration, and studio-as-creative-toolbox notions. Sir George sadly passed away this year, and the series is dedicated to him, but as a central important producer and imprimatur in the project, he left us with something of looming inspiration on the small screen.
Inevitably, the tapestry has omissions that will raise hackles for fans of certain groups and musical sub-genres, but overall, the series admirably traces trends and technologies over the decades. There are reasons for choices made: the Boston bit, for instance, is a fascinating case study in a “band” album actually made by one home-studio-handy wizard, Tom Scholz, in his basement, an early standard-bearer of the wave of home recording. In the indispensable niche of African-American influence, the series celebrates Beyoncé, Little Richard, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Grandmaster Flash, Chuck D, RZA, Michael Jackson, and others, repeatedly returning to the seminal importance of gospel music, the secret base ingredient of pop.
As the title promises, and delivers, this not-so-brief history of music is broken up into stories, illustrating larger points and subject headings, with multiple specific, personal stories under each heading. Each episode is built on a particular theme: Episode 2 is the studio-oriented “Painting with Sound,” Episode 4 is “Going Electric,” and Episode 6 is “The World Is Yours” (re: sampling and hip-hop’s rise).
By now, the dense annals of music docs are a blurry embarrassment of both riches and tedium, including VHI-style artist-bio dramatics and ego-polishing. Soundbreaking brilliantly, and lavishly, breaks with weary music doc convention, focusing on both the music and the means of production and reproduction — studio life, attention paid to gear gurus such as Bob Moog and Roger Linn (of LinnDrum fame), and ever-changing formats — wax cylinder to vinyl to cassettes, CDs, and the present digital universe. The Dave Grohl–driven doc Sound City was fascinating for the loving attention paid to gear, antique techno-lore, and the ambience of a treasured old analog studio in the Valley — more intriguing than the film’s rock-star turns. Soundbreaking takes that idea further and wider, filling in gaps, even for die-hard music heads, and rising to the lofty premise of Episode 7 title (apologies and respects paid to the late, great David Bowie), bringing a warm, fuzzy bounty of “sound and vision” to America’s living room.