One big idea separates “1971: The Year that Music Changed Everything” from other music anthology documentaries bathed in Baby Boomer nostalgia. It’s the overreaching claim in the title, that “music changed everything” in that seminal year, just after the ’60s, just before the ’70s took hold.
It wasn’t just fashion and music that were transformed, but social attitudes on everything from sexuality and pornography to race, drug use, faith to faith in politics were upended in a youth-driven revolution whose big bang still echoes today.
A generation being sent to slaughter in a ruinous war, “at odds with the silent majority,” broke through and drove the Nixon administration and FBI so nuts that Watergate happened and the Vietnam War ended. And musically?
“We were creating the 21st century in 1971,” David Bowie remembered.
In eight installments, episodes titled “Respect,” “Starman,” “Exile” “What’s Happening?” “End of the Acid Dream, “Changes,” “Our Time is Now” and “The Revolution Will Not be Televised” break down the peak year for activism in American pop, rock and soul.
Asif Kapadia, who gave us the warm but blunt Amy Winehouse documentary “Amy” co-produced and co-directed the series, building it on archival footage and scores of interviews — some fresh, some archival, stretching from back then to the present, all heard in voice-over.
Here’s Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders remembering when the National Guard came to her school and shot protestors days after students burned the campus ROTC building. Hynde attended Kent State. We hear from Marvin Gaye, Mick and Carole King, Tina and Sly and see many of them in TV appearances from 1971.
Dick Cavett has a lot of moments with a lot of artists — not all of them comfortable (Sly Stone was blitzed). But who remembers how hip Merv Griffin’s “musical guests” were?
A great stylistic choice? Lyrics appear on screen as Bill Withers sings “Harlem,” Tina and Carole and Aretha sing songs of female empowerment or protesting racial injustice. The breadth of material, with artists from Lennon and Yoko to The Staple Singers, The Stones, Black Sabbath and The Who performing and/or composing music of social relevance, takes the viewer from impressed to overwhelmed.
“Respect Yourself” The Staples sing. Make sure “We Won’t Get Fooled Again,” declare The Who.
Jim Morrison died, “glam” blew up, Elton John broke out in America, Bowie signed a record deal, visited Warhol, met Lou Reed and Iggy Popp and “the actor” took on a new role, a reinvented persona who became “Ziggy Stardust.”
Big rock concerts had given a generation a mythic moment at Woodstock and the tar of infamy at Altamonte. But when George Harrison and his friend Ravi Shankar whipped up The Concert for Bangladesh in 1971, musical activism took on the mantle of charity.
The “make the world a little better” benefit concert was born on Aug. 1, 1971, in Madison Square Garden.
The Rolling Stones went deep down the heroin rabbit hole in the South of France, and came out with their LP “Exile on Main Street.” And by the time they cleaned up enough to perform live again, they launched the epic 1972 tour that shaped their stadium-filling persona from that day forward.
Pete Townsend and Kraftwerk dabbled with synthesizers, Marshall McLuhan and Pete prophesied the day when “all the music and film” in the world will be on a machine in your home, for easy access to entertainment and manipulation by The State or Big Capitalism.
African American artists punched through on whitewashed TV and reinvented music’s business model to give themselves a chance. Marc Bolan led young girls astray, and The Osmonds stepped into a “wholesome” vacuum.
The range of material covered and the voices heard — from McLuhan to Bob Marley, Aretha (a supporter of Angela Davis) to Alice Cooper, Gil Scott-Heron to Hunter S. Thompson — is right on the edge of mind-blowing.
Granted, Kapadia & Co. use “context” to work in momentous events that surrounded 1971. The Kent State massacre happened in 1970, and the Beatles broke up that same year. The infamous Rolling Stones Altamonte concert, “the death knell for the ’60s” and “the end of the ‘acid dream,'” played out in 1969, and the epic African American musicians in Ghana concert, “Soul to Soul,” was in 1970.
And if you’ve gone your whole life without catching the soothing sounds of Yoko Ono’s activist, apple-cart upsetting music or hoped you’d never have to consider Geraldo Rivera again, guess again.
Lennon and Ono were front and center, performing and protesting everything from Vietnam to an infamous British obscenity case (“Oz” magazine) with Yoko yelling at bowler-hatted hidebound Britannia to “Open Your Box.” And Rivera? He was all over New York music and culture and protests and the like, the young face of New York TV news at the time.
It’s a lot to take in, and almost sure to earn “OK, Boomer” eye-rolls from those who came along decades later. But “1971” starts with an outlandish claim and proceeds to do a pretty good job of backing it up. Will the Britney/Kanye/Kendrick/Beyonce/J Balvin-J.Lo/J-T generation be able to make its nostalgia seem as epochal and historic?
MPA Rating: unrated, violence, nudity, drug content, profanity, smoking
Cast: Tina Turner, John Lennon, Marvin Gaye, Carole King, Sly Stone, Mick Jagger, David Bowie, Alice Cooper, Curtis Mayfield, Pop and Mavis Staples, Pete Townsend
Credits: Produced by Asif Kapadia, directed by Asif Kapadia, Danielle Peck and James Rogan. A Mercury Studios/Apple TV+ release
Running time: eight episodes @:43-:50 each