Russell Baillie writes about movies for the Herald

From Beatles to Beyonce: TV series traces recorded history

An ambitious new series takes a long look at the science and art of recording music
Producer Sir George Martin, pictured at work in the the 1960s, got the series Soundbreaking off the ground before he died earlier this year.
Producer Sir George Martin, pictured at work in the the 1960s, got the series Soundbreaking off the ground before he died earlier this year.

It might have been started by the late Sir George Martin and it might have his studio work with the Beatles as its bedrock.

But new documentary series Soundbreaking is more than yet another nostalgic study of the Fab Four and the man they named the Fifth Beatle.

New York-based Jeff Dupre, who co-directed the eight-part series for American public broadcaster PBS, says Martin and his producer son Giles had worked for five years on an idea for a series about the science and art of recording - collecting an archive of interviews - before he and partner Maro Chermayeff signed on to take over the project.

The pair set about filming hundreds more interviews, gathering archive material and clearances for hundreds of songs.

"It was kind of a project that he always wanted to do for many years," says Dupre of Sir George, who saw the finished series before his death last month.

"He felt that the story had never been told properly - the impact of recorded music on the world and all the incredible innovations that had occurred in the recording studio that had transformed the sound of popular music and, in turn, transformed our lives."

The shape of the series revealed itself as filming progressed, and later in the editing suite.

Though this was to be a story of music recording, it's a not a chronological history beginning with Thomas Edison's phonograph and ending with Kanye's favourite apps.

"There were cuts and versions of the show where it was: 'Let's talk about how magnetic tape actually works! It's so interesting!' But you can kind of derail the train if you get bogged down in too much discussion of the technology.

"That was the big challenge of the series, to sort of create a film that is a real experience," says Dupre. "One that you can enjoy and learn some new thing about how a song that you loved was made, but not go so far into the details that you lose interest."

Jeff Dupre co-director of the series Soundbreaking.
Jeff Dupre co-director of the series Soundbreaking.

Each episode has its own title, starting with The Recording Artist in the first instalment and ending with I Am My Music, which looks at the evolution of the fans' listening experience.

Along the way are chapters devoted to the electrification of instruments, the increasing dominance of rhythm in pop, the advent of hip-hop, and effect of the MTV era.

But although the series heads down some genre paths, Dupre says it attempts to put developments into a wider context and remind that artists aren't just influenced by others doing the same thing. For example, the series features rappers RZA of the Wu-Tang Clan discussing The Beatles and Chuck D of Public Enemy talking about the influence of Bob Dylan.

Public Enemy.
Public Enemy.

"There is no separation for these people. They don't isolate themselves. All these artists are listening to each other and they are being influenced by each other. That is the take-away for me."

The show pulls apart some classic tracks at the mixing desk. Everything from The Beatles' experimental classic Tomorrow Never Knows to Beyonce's Crazy in Love.

Dupre says a favourite moment was Adele's producer and co-writer Paul Epworth pulling up a demo version of Rolling in the Deep.

"You could hear her breathing and you could hear her stomping her feet to create the rhythm track. It was really cool. You just felt so close to that original moment."

Adele in the studio.
Adele in the studio.

And although the list of interviewees - the access helped by the Martin connection - is vast and impressive, there were some Dupre was disappointed at being unable to land.

"When you are dealing with people who are rock stars, sometimes schedules don't align. It would have been great to interview David Bowie, obviously. Bruce Springsteen. But we shot over 200 interviews. We don't feel like we are lacking for star power.

"What we were really looking for were people who did new and interesting things in the studio, who did groundbreaking things and Bowie and Springsteen did those things.

"But the series celebrates the producers and often the producers are the people behind the scenes who you never really hear about but have had a huge influence on how music sounds. So the series is really celebrating those people."


What: Soundbreaking, eight-part series on the history of recorded music

When: Tuesdays, 9.30pm

Where: Prime

- NZ Herald

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