music documentaries

What’s Really Worth Remembering About 1971’s Historic Year in Music

The Staple Singers in Asif Kapadia’s new Apple TV+ doc 1971: The Year That Music Changed Everything. Photo: Apple TV+

“We were creating the 21st century in 1971.” This sound bite from an out-of-context David Bowie interview plays during the opening credits of Apple TV+’s new documentary 1971: The Year That Music Changed Everything, released May 21. With hours of rare archival footage woven together into a novel structure, 1971 attempts to walk us through a turbulent year in American history and show how the (many) classic albums of 1971 shaped today’s world. The series’s director and executive producer Asif Kapadia, and much of the team behind his 2015 Oscar-winning documentary Amy, give us many dots to connect, and Apple clearly spent a lot of money to prove Bowie right. But really, 1971 is just a more serious I Love the ’70s, a fun and often compelling walk down memory lane that upholds a kind of boomer nostalgia, updated for a new generation; it’s the more inclusive classic-rock documentary you make after What’s Going On, released in 1971, replaces Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band as Rolling Stone’s greatest album of all time.

1971 was inspired by British journalist David Hepworth’s 2017 book exploring what he considered rock and roll’s turning point. It was indeed a good year: What’s Going On, There’s a Riot Goin’ On, Tapestry, Blue, Sticky Fingers (and much of the recording of Exile on Main Street), Hunky Dory, Pieces of a Man, Who’s Next, Electric Warrior, Tago Mago, and more came out that year. There’s so much ground to cover that it’s hard to be too mad at Kapadia for not covering every single classic album released then. We only get a few moments of Black Sabbath, Jethro Tull, Yes, and Janis Joplin; we get nothing on Led Zeppelin, Serge Gainsbourg, Carly Simon, Bonnie Raitt, Harry Nilsson, the Beach Boys, Funkadelic, and the Allman Brothers Band.

According to the introduction in Hepworth’s book, the ’60s truly ended on New Year’s Eve 1970, when Paul McCartney filed his lawsuit to officially dissolve the Beatles. Though 1971 doesn’t commit to any strict rockist ideology, its zigzag nature speaks to Hepworth’s observation that 1971 was the first truly post-Beatles year. In music as in life, 1971 would be a year of fracturing tribes, sad endings, and unsure beginnings. No one knew what to do. Not everyone agreed on what to make of the future.

These conflicts give 1971 its structure. The documentary’s eight episodes, each about an hour long, mostly contrast a handful of artists and their reactions to a specific theme: Marvin Gaye and John Lennon using their art to address the Vietnam War; the Rolling Stones and Sly and the Family Stone navigating the harder drugs of the new decade; David Bowie, Alice Cooper, and T. Rex crafting more theatrical, androgynous glam rock to be the pop music for a new generation; Carole King, Joni Mitchell, and Elton John using L.A.’s singer-songwriter boom as an internal escape from Charles Manson’s still-large shadow; Aretha Franklin, Curtis Mayfield, and Gil Scott-Heron supporting the Black Power movement and changing people’s minds through music; Tina Turner, James Brown, and Bill Withers making music for all people while still presenting a message. If we take 1971 at its word, the most famous musicians of 1971 fell along this divide: those who dropped out and those who changed with the times and never looked back.

It’s a big swing. The pieces are there. However, Marvin Gaye footage aside, the first three episodes are shaky. Episode one could be summed up by Tariq Ali, journalist and friend of John Lennon, describing how “Imagine” created a feeling of hope that created activism … and showing no proof of that activism. A cursory glance through the beginning of 1971 evokes that Bowie quote — surely the musicians believed that they were changing the world, but 1971 offers little evidence that they were the drivers of that change rather than just reflecting the times. The good news is that each following episode grows in focus and confidence. The most convincing episodes are episode five and the finale, when there is a clearer sense of before and after. 1971 does a better job painting how the world became a different place following “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” and then breaking down Pete Townsend’s foresight that guitar rock could only work for so long juxtaposed with Kraftwerk creating that very guitarless future. Lazy or not, 1971 does its heavy lifting through its hours of archival footage, with famous talking heads giving voice-overs and onscreen lyrics coloring each episode’s key tracks.

The archival reel is the star. Most of this footage feels new and revealing, even if you’ve seen some of these scenes in other documentaries. Not all of it is flattering. A lurking Phil Spector is recording a frustrated John Lennon messing up takes of “Gimme Some Truth”; Lennon later explains how he’s trying to use “Imagine” to sell peace like Coca-Cola. Some moments are terrifying — episode two shows the stabbing of Meredith Hunter at Altamont and the crowd’s real-time reaction. Then there are less dire clips, like a nervous George Harrison nearly shaking in his white suit as he walks backstage at Madison Square Garden during his Concert for Bangladesh, or Bowie’s awkward one and only meeting with his idol, Andy Warhol.

The non-musical footage is often just as enlightening. For those who weren’t around in 1971, it’s interesting to watch clips of An American Family, Angela Davis, Germaine Greer, the Children of God, George Jackson, the Attica Prison riot, the Oz trial, England’s “Keep Britain White” movement, and other 1971 moments that, for better or worse, feel relevant to 2021. Some of these clips have lost their spark; younger millennial classic-rock fans might be the last demographic to think that Hunter Thompson was interesting. Some footage is just delightful or hilarious. A favorite is a bemused elderly British woman on the news reciting the suggestive and supposedly corruptible lyrics to T. Rex’s “Get It On.” (1971 rightfully hints that T. Rex in his prime would have given Harry Styles a good run for his money.) There’s also Bowie making his Glastonbury debut and playing “Changes” for the first time live, alone on an electric piano at 5 a.m. to a sleeping crowd. That we get to see a pre-fame young Bowie botching an early version of what will soon become one of rock’s greatest anthems is the kind of fresh perspective that makes 1971 worth watching — and what one wishes there was more of.

2021 is the 50th anniversary of 1971, but as of this month, 1971 also benefits from some unexpected timeliness. Several featured artists in the doc — Tina Turner, Carole King, Kraftwerk, and Gil Scott-Heron — are a part of this year’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction class. In that sense, 1971 works best as a victory lap. It’s Apple picking a creative way to promote what is essentially an Apple Music playlist that’s trying to be a podcast made as a limited series. It’s a fun trip that adds little beyond reminding us that, hey, Tapestry sounded great in 1971 … and sounds equally great in 2021. You can sense that Kapadia was reaching for something more. 1971 wants to be both Ken Burns and VH1’s Behind the Music. It could have been a great version of either one, but it’s too thin to be both. Still, it hits the spot when it gets there.

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The Real Nostalgia of 1971’s Historic Year in Music