'Seven Ages’ takes look at musical memories

LONDON — BBC Bristol is fast gaining international fame for making documentaries dedicated to exploring a very different type of life form — equally well known for their wild antics — rock and pop musicians.

“The Seven Ages of Rock” is the latest music-related doc made by Bristol-based producer William Naylor.

Some claim he has set the gold standard for this sub-genre thanks to previous skeins such as “Dancing in the Streets”; “Walk on By,” devoted to the art of the pop song; “Soul Deep”, a history of soul music; and the country-laced “Lost Highway.”

These tirelessly researched and lovingly crafted programs are a must for most music fans.

They effectively combine impressive archival performance footage alongside new interviews together with other conversations and reminiscences hauled from the vaults.

So does “The Seven Ages of Rock,” which completed its run on BBC2 June 30, live up to the high expectations set by his previous films?

Frankly, any answer depends on your take on rock culture and how you think it ought to be treated on the small screen.

Some critics have complained that this latest attempt to serve up 50-odd years of music in seven, one-hour themed programs is too earnest. Hey, it’s rock ‘n’ roll we’re taking about here and not ancient civilizations, runs their argument.

They complain that the supercharged cut and thrust of rock at its best is reduced to a dry scholarly discourse as pompous pundits pepper the film with lofty sound bites.

“I thought I was watching a Victorian lecture in art history,” said a BBC documentarian who prefers a more up-close and personal approach in his films. But then “The Seven Ages of Rock,” co-produced with VHI, was intended as a general primer.

This was a program aimed squarely at mainstream auds and not a series for vinyl junkies capable of identifying the precise model of amplifier Hendrix used to crank up the decibels at Woodstock.

Taken on its own terms, this series had a lot going for it. Not least for the way it ignored much-traveled highways in order to illuminate a larger truth.

Consider the opening episode, “The Birth of Rock.” Underplaying the contribution made by the Beatles and Dylan, the film took Hendrix as its focus claiming, controversially, that the guitar genius effectively synthesized all that had gone down before to invent “rock.”

A highly contentious view but compelling nonetheless, despite the overblown commentary that treated every minor development of this story of ’60s folk as “seminal” or “iconic.”

In episode three, punk was approached as a tale of two cities, London and New York, juxtaposing bands such as the Sex Pistols and the Clash with Patti Smith and Television.

“The Seven Ages” tag suggests Naylor believes that rock has reached the end of the line. If he genuinely does believe this, one can only hope he soon finds another rich seam of pop culture to get to tackle.

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