Taking an atypical route to chronicle rock ‘n’ roll separates “History of Rock” from the pack of docus on the subject. The 10 hours feature an impressive collection of clips and name performers, but the use of anecdotes to drive the narrative — and an abundance of lackluster interviews — add up to a ball of confusion.
Far too many clips reduce the stars’ comments to soundbites. Often they are commenting on movements of which they were not a part — Graham Nash on the thrill of meeting Bill Haley and the Everly Brothers is effective; the Who’s Pete Townshend on punk is useless.
Many of the artists, among them Bruce Springsteen, Tina Turner, Little Richard, Nash and U2’s Bono, are seen throughout the 10-parter, which dims some of their effectiveness. Fresh faces in certain volumes — Iggy Pop, Hank Ballard , Eddie Van Halen and Chuck D of Public Enemy are the best — provide the story’s support system.
Wisely, the show avoids cliched stock footage. Clips come from a number of sources (some of the best are from the classic B&W concert pic “Don’t Knock the Rock”), and several artists (Elvis Presley, the Beatles, Elvis Costello) are seen making their TV debuts. New footage is spectacularly clean, delineating the fresh interviews from ones shot as recently as five years ago. The problem is an abundance of quotes from Nash, Jackson Browne and Steely Dan/Doobie Brothers guitarist Jeff “Skunk” Baxter.
By virtue of its placement of clips and the amount of time devoted to certain topics, “History of Rock” creates an agenda without a narrator spelling it out. Some of the theories are insightful: Rock began with jump-blues master Louis Jordan; rock’s most important fest was the Monterey International Pop Festival; Bob Dylan has affected every performer since his arrival. However, the proposition that Bruce Springsteen saved the world from drum machines, disco and stale, de rigueur performances is outlandish.
The strongest episodes cover punk and the development of folk rock. Episode 4 , “Plugging In,” which covers Dylan and his influence from 1964 through ’69, works the best. The rare clips, revealing comments from David Crosby and Roger McGuinn, and clear storyline give the episode its strength.
Dylan’s importance is made clear by a stream of stars, and the perfectly timed scenes segue from New York folk clubs to the Newport Folk Festival and press conferences. “He absolutely influenced everything that came after him,” says Tom Petty in one of the most definitive statements in the series.
Similarly, the ninth installment, “Punk,” uses narration and follows a cogent timeline of performers: Iggy Pop, New YorkDolls, Ramones, Richard Hell, Patti Smith, Talking Heads, Sex Pistols and the Clash. The show ignores ’80s bands — a strategy that’s subject to debate — and leaps ahead to Nirvana.
But for viewers not familiar with the history, it can be confusing as to who did what where and when. For those who know the music and timeline, the sequential jumps often are illogical. Too often, the series fails to specify its key point — an era, a locale, a band and its influence, etc. — and winds up feeling like too much is being covered.
Series starts with a stream of major rock stars discussing their ideas about what rock ‘n’ roll is and should be. The insight level is nil. But clips of Presley, Buddy Holly and Ray Charles are glorious and not the usual fodder.
Despite major names offering thoughts, it’s Felix Cavaliere of the Rascals and Ahmet Ertegun who come off the best. Cavaliere explains how records were chapters in a history book that was being written — a correspondence from Americans to the rest of the world. What they knew about America — or even what Americans knew about certain cities — was what was found in a stack of 45s. Ertegun talks about his migration from Turkey being a driving factor in his “understanding the black experience.” It’s that connection with black people, he says, that made his development of R&B-based Atlantic Records so natural.
Best segment is a clip of Chuck Berry performing “Maybellene” to a young, white audience in suits and dresses, seated around the guitarist. They never move, clap, sing along or dance. They sit and listen.
Part 2’s title, “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” suggests a chapter on Presley, jump blues and the evolution of rockabilly. The reality, in order, is Presley, Carl Perkins, Neil Sedaka, the Brill Building writers, Leiber & Stoller, Phil Spector , Ben E. King and “The Twist.” Hardly a natural evolution.
An early musicvid for Sedaka’s “Calendar Girl” has a naive cuteness to it and the filmmakers do a great job splicing shots of various dance crazes, but most of Part 2’s nuggets are relegated to the anecdotes, like Dick Clark’s bizarre assertion that “The Twist” was the most significant record in rock ‘n’ roll because “everyone could admit they like rock ‘n’ roll.”
The British Invasion starts Part 3, and the filmmakers wisely allow bands other than the Beatles or Stones to talk about their roles and how they saw them. Featured most prominently are the Animals (and, surprise, Eric Burdon supplies a lot of commentary), but there’s not enough of a nudge to show how much better the Animals and Kinks were than any other band at the time. Footage of Carnaby Street fashions stands out.
In the seg’s moment of illogic, the story shifts midstream by suggesting the Byrds were America’s Beatles and then moving on to the Lovin’ Spoonful and Mamas & Papas, who perform “Creeque Alley.” Too often, the tangents determine the storyline.
Other episodes are devoted to soul (not available for review); the 1967-69 rise of festivals; guitar heroes; the 1970s, though little beyond the theatrical acts in the early part of the decade is covered; and “Up From the Underground,” a misnomer of a title because it chronicles MTV and the rise of rap.
The 10-parter’s greatest fault is its failure to recognize rock ‘n’ roll as a regional music, talking only about the two mainstays: Motown and San Francisco. It ignores Memphis beyond Sun Records, L.A.’s psychedelic scene and, most importantly, New Orleans’ contributions. By confining soul and R&B to a separate seg, the series fails to reflect the integral influence black music has had on rock. And the 1970s are given poor treatment — what about the singer-songwriters? Disco? Corporate rock?
Like far too many rock chronicles, the beloved are covered at the expense of the entire story.