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Rock and Roll Documentaries

1971: The Year That Music Changed Everything


Documentaries on Rock and Roll are usually pretty poor affairs, reeking of the self-importance of the industry projected onto the personalities narrating or conducting the interviews that make up such histories, meanwhile the real pitch of the thing is that a fan gets to view and hear their favorite acts (sandwiched in between the commentary) and perhaps see or hear a piece of music that's a rare recording.

But within the documentaries is a rather outsized estimation of Rock and Roll's importance and impact. Maybe that's to be expected from the comments of the performers who lived the experience and in recounting it speak of Rock's impact looming large. But the documentaries that use these oral explorations of "rock and roll milestones" can't seem to couch all of this in a reality of what is going on in the culture surrounding rock and roll. This dilemma shows up in documentaries about sports, Hollywood, and political figures, too, and it shows off the easy distortions that documentaries traffick in, and how the glamour of the subject ends up so often being given another coating of lacquer in the language of marketing while deceitfully (whether intended or not) pretending to be a true history of the subject with some fair sense of proportion.

Which is what comes across in 1971: The Year That Music Changed Everything. With voice-overs by rock and roll performers like David Bowie and Alice Cooper, among others, you get a sense of balance in that these performers state their goals (usually fame and money, and a desire to musically experiment), but this is then wrapped inside the words of rock and roll critics of the period (people from Rolling Stone Magazine, for example), and the self-importance of the music, it's cultural worth, and the snobbery of it all makes the narration veer into language that is just barely a few steps away from being plain publicity materials for the acts and the genre itself, and the attendant publications and critics of the genre.

At its worst, this kind of presentation is both religion and political idealogy, with the sermons of rock and roll (which in these kind of tellings isn't just music, but hairstyles, clothing, and probably most important of all, attitudes) creating cultural change and then saying people "were different" after the experience of the music. But that is straight-up, unadorned marketing, that's "if you buy this product you will be different" classic Madison-Avenue persuasion, and the failure of rock and roll as a faith system is that if you subtracted rock and roll out of the history of (say) the United States you would not be able to detect any significant difference, there would still be crooked politicians (no matter how much Pete Tounsend says "we won't get fooled again"), you'd have crime, huge rates of divorce (music that sings about Love so much ought to have made a dent in this problem, if it in fact it had that power). There's still pollution, the "summertime blues" and so many other problems. So what exactly did rock and roll change?

The answer is it didn't change the world, and its lasting impact on culture is as fleeting as all the music styles that preceded it. Chuck Berry (who probably should have a royalty paid to his estate from the vast, vast majority of rock acts that followed in his wake and copied his guitar stylings) sang that "Rock and Roll will never die" and yet the genre has only barely outlived the guy who made this prophecy, its prowess as an art form shrinking yearly as other genres have substantially taken over the stage. Rather than being the music that changed everything, rock and roll is just what was on the radio while it all happened.


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