Potent from minute one, “Rock & Roll” starts deep in the black South and keeps its heart there throughout 10 hours. (Docu even suggests the Beatles were the death of great black rock ‘n’ roll rather than the artists who provided validation of the genre.) It stops just short of completion by a few stories that, were they told in the manner of the best of this collection, would make it definitive.
Packed with revealing interviews of behind-the-scenes legends and a hefty dose of artists’ TV appearances, series shies from retelling the Elvis-Beatles-Stones-Zeppelin-Pistols-Springsteen-Nirvana story and gets into the grooves between the greatest hits, revealing the truth about who kept the beat steady.
Ten-parter is at its best in exploring and dissecting black music, with the key musicians talking of changes in society and drum patterns in the same breath. First seg on black music, “Respect,” contrasts the three key schools brilliantly; how the older jazz musicians who formed the Motown rhythm section could read music and were accustomed to accompanying singers; how the Stax stalwarts (Booker T and the MG’s) let it all fly; and how the white musicians in Muscle Shoals, Ala., could match many of their black counterparts in soulfulness.
The second black music seg — program eight, “Make it Funky” — picks up where so many rock chroniclers end and traces the lineage of James Brown, Sly & the Family Stone (who are incorrectly identified as the first interracial rock act), P-Funk and the Philadelphia Intl. label to disco. Final segment, “The Perfect Beat,” covers rap and the dance music of the ’90s. Facts are presented straight — the commentary is left to the musicians, producers and writers.
In fact, the show’s greatest strength is its presentation of individuals who can provide a big picture; the studio owners, disc jockeys, producers, backup musicians, songwriters — even the director of the Motown Finishing School. Stars enter the picture, too, but their interviews often shed the most light on others; for example, Lloyd Price on finding Little Richard, Brian Wilson on the influence Phil Spector’s “Be My Baby” had on him, Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh on the Rolling Stones’ jaded interest in Altamont.
Byrds founder Roger McGuinn provides expert insights into songs throughout the middle segments, pointing to the origins and development of the Byrds’ classic songs — the sitar influence on “Eight Miles High” and how the time signature of Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” was changed to match the rhythm of the Beach Boys’ “Don’t Worry Baby.”
Narrator Liev Schreiber is lowkey throughout, allowing the images, background music and the story itself to set the drama. He introduces Spector, for instance, no differently than he does members of the Shirelles, but reverence is conveyed in the upward pan of a famous Spector-at-the-soundboard still photo backed by an omjinous Wagner theme.
Show promises p.o.v.’s in intros to each seg and delivers. Only drawbacks are an occasional reliance on old interviews (Eric Clapton must’ve been taped a decade ago) and lip-synched TV appearances that don’t bring out the character of the bands live.
There’s also some time-line slippage in the “Punk” episode, Stock footage can also be heavy-handed, as it was rarely shot during the time period being discussed; generic shots of London, New York, Memphis, L.A., etc. lack the visceral appeal of footage of record stores in Jamaica.
Program one, “Renegades,” does what so few rock docs have done: establish the music’s regional origins. Memphis, New Orleans and Chicago are chronicled, respectively, in the comments of studio owners Sam Phillips, Cosimo Matassa and Marshall Chess, each providing a coherent retelling of the music’s evolution. This segment has the greatest perspective of the series, a bonus supplied by the obvious freshness of the interviews.
“In the Groove,” the second hour, examines the rise of songwriters and producers as savants, starting with Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller and ending with the greatest of all, Phil Spector. Brill Building writers, girl groups and the Beach Boys enter the picture, which, segment writers Daniel McCabe and Vicky Bippart aver, signals all is OK with rock ‘n’ roll in America — a British invasion was not what the music needed.
“Shakespeares in the Alley” (part three) concentrates on Bob Dylan, the Beatles and the growing folk-rock trend, all oft-told stories given subtle twists by astute comments from Robbie Robertson and McGuinn’s song examinations.
After “Respect,” series gets offtrack in hour five, “Crossroads.” Talking about the related genre of the blues, it neither fully explains the blues’ migration from plantations to cities nor illuminates much beyond the heavily reported facts about the Rolling Stones, Yardbirds, Cream and Led Zeppelin.
Hour six, “Blues in Technicolor” — psychedelic rock and the Woodstock Nation , essentially — is heavy on rehash, with only the Dead’s Lesh offering a fresh perspective on Altamont and the Stones. Episode sticks with the big names (Dead , Big Brother and the Holding Company, Jefferson Airplane) and one locale (San Francisco) rather than exploring how the genre was driven by one-hit wonders and brilliant underground bands such as Moby Grape, Love, the Seeds and the 13th Floor Elevators in both remote towns and major cities.
Iggy Pop, always one of rock’s great interview subjects, makes “The Wild Side” a fun hour. Seg exhausts the development of David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust , Jim Morrison as the Lizard King and Vincent Furnier as Alice Cooper.
The black music of the ’70s dominates hour eight, “Make it Funky,” and turns up again in program nine, “Punk,” in which the influence of Jamaican reggae is shown as the rhythmic element that made punk and new wave salable to the masses.
Seg has a decided American bend, starting with Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers’ classic ’73 self-titled LP and moving through Patti Smith, Television, Talking Heads and the Ramones before hitting the Sex Pistols and the Clash. Nearly a decade is skipped before an obligatory mention is made of Nirvana, though no explanation is even attempted at what the band possessed.
“The Perfect Beat” closes with interesting roots-of-rap interviews with Chuck D., the Beastie Boys and Run-DMC but presents rock of the ’90s as an evolution of Europeans absorbing and altering 120-beat-per-minute dance music known as “house.”
As solid a primer as this is, there are obvious holes; the one-hit wonders, garage rock, musical styles besides blues that continue to influence rock, and the music scenes in cities such as L.A., New Orleans after 1960 and Boston. And there’s no epilogue to provide a sense of what all of this means, an ingredient that provided a ray of hope in the final inning of last year’s “Baseball.” It doesn’t seem like there’s much hope for rock ‘n’ roll here.
Important figures never mentioned include the Kinks, Arthur Lee’s Love, Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Allman Brothers Band, Neil Young, Little Walter, Quicksilver Messenger Service, the Jam, Everly Brothers, Van Morrison’s solo career, Solomon Burke, Fleetwood Mac, Peter Frampton and Peter Gabriel. Bruce Springsteen and Sonic Youth warrant more than the two or three seconds of screen time they receive. And black musicians who in the ’70s and ’80s continued the R&B/rock legacy of the ’50s — most notably Al Green and Robert Cray — are overlooked.
It all points to a necessary sequel that could chronicle an omnipresent level of Americana in music that starts with Hank Williams and rolls through Johnny Cash, streetcorner doo-wop, Buffalo Springfield, CCR, the Allmans, X, the Blasters, Los Lobos and the Dave Matthews Band. “Rock & Roll” successfully avoids turning rock music into a museum piece, but it’s still a few rungs from the top of the ladder.