Fifty years ago the Vietnam War was raging, the civil rights era had morphed into the Black Power movement, President Nixon declared a war on drugs and not only the U.S. but other countries seemed in danger of coming apart at the seams.
It was also a time of groundbreaking popular music—records that went beyond merely reflecting the moment to actually shaping it. That feeling of an artistic eruption in the midst of a society in crisis comes through in 1971: The Year Music Changed Everything, an eight-part documentary series from Apple TV+.
“So much music that we recognize today had its birth in that year,” editor and executive producer Chris King said during the panel discussion at Deadline’s Contenders Television: Documentary + Unscripted awards-season event. “We wanted to root it there and make you live that year in a full way.”
Carole King released her album Tapestry in 1971. Marvin Gaye came out with What’s Going On in May of that year. The Beatles had already broken up, but John Lennon was writing vital, socially engaged music on his own. The Rolling Stones were holed up in the south of France, working on what would become the classic double album Exile on Main Street.
“I mean, every major artist—male, female, group, individual—seems to almost a complete level deliver their masterworks that year,” executive producer James Gay-Rees said. “Then you sort of ask yourself the question, ‘Well, why? What was going on in the culture and in society that gave birth to so much brilliant music?’ which is still completely iconic today.”
Director James Rogan hadn’t been born yet in 1971, but he knew the music and he did his homework on the era.
“John Lennon would literally sit in bed and read the news and then write a song like ‘Gimme Some Truth,’” he said. “The [songs] were a direct response to the conservative post-war generation and the issues of the time. And so there’s a huge sense of release of inhibition and a sense of freedom that can only be channeled out through this new, relatively still quite young medium of pop music. And that’s why you just get this explosion of songwriting and just extraordinary songs.”
The series seamlessly weaves between what was in the news in 1971 and what was on the radio and record players.
“It’s talking about an extraordinary psychological experiment called the Stanford Prison Experiment, it’s talking about My Lai, it’s talking about Charles Manson,” series producer and director Danielle Peck said. “It’s talking about this really kind of tense and difficult year because Lt. [William] Calley was found guilty [of the My Lai Massacre] in ’71, Charles Manson was sentenced in ’71, the experiment took place in ’71. Chris [King] created this incredibly evocative and complicated scene which then paid off with a fantastic track by Stevie Wonder called “Evil,” and it’s just alchemy. It’s beautiful.”
King, Gay-Rees and series director Asif Kapadia also collaborated on the 2015 Oscar-winning documentary Amy, about the late singer Amy Winehouse. That film was covered wall-to-wall with archival material—no “talking heads” appeared on camera. For 1971, the team adopted a similar approach.
“It’s a difficult thing to pull off,” King admitted. “And with Amy we really only had one small cast of characters—Amy herself and those around her. 1971 we’ve got a huge, huge cast and so it threw up challenges of who’s speaking and which voice are we going to pick out of the many that we interviewed. The ultimate goal was to stay in the moment…If you cut away in the middle of any of that action from 1971 and see any of those people now, suddenly it’s nostalgia and that’s not what we’re about.”
Check out the panel video above.