Why the Music Doc Series ‘1971’ Wasn’t Just About Music

TheWrap magazine: Director Asif Kapadia says. “It’s not, ‘Listen to this piece of music, and then this one’ — what’s the bigger picture around it?”

This story about “1971: The Year That Music Changed Everything” first appeared in the Race Begins issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.

The subtitle of the Apple TV+’s “1971” is the first clue as to the ambitions of the seven-part documentary series. While it is loosely based on David Hepworth’s 2016 book, “Never a Dull Moment: 1971 — The Year That Rock Exploded,” the series makes a key change and calls itself “1971: The Year That Music Changed Everything.”

In other words, it’s not about how music changed at the beginning of the 1970s; it’s about how music changed the world. 

“It was an incredible time for a range of artists, and the music subsequently motivated the world,” said Asif Kapadia, the Oscar-winning director whose other films include “Amy,” “Senna” and “Diego Maradona.” “The idea was to get into the music, but also the environment, the politics and how they all cross over.

“And the issues we’re dealing with now — Black Lives Matter and the rise of the far right — played a huge role at the time. You can watch this and think, ‘Has anything changed? Have we moved on at all? The thing that stood out to me is that these artists really stood up and spoke out and were active. And the question I’ll leave to the audience is, ‘Are artists and musicians doing the same now, or is it a different game we’re in?’”

The series focuses on artists including John Lennon, George Harrison, Aretha Franklin, the Rolling Stones, David Bowie, Marvin Gaye, Marc Bolan, Carole King, Joni Mitchell, The Who and Sly and the Family Stone, among many others. Kapadia admits they couldn’t get everybody they wanted to participate: “One of the challenges was that there are a lot of people saying, ‘Well, maybe there’s a movie to be made about my life, so I’m going to pass on this.’” He wouldn’t say which artists fell into this camp, though crucial 1971 music that is not mentioned in the series includes “Led Zeppelin IV” and Rod Stewart’s “Every Picture Tells a Story.”

The filmmakers, who included executive producer James Gay-Rees, also had to contend with finding the balance between the music and the world around it, with detours that would tie the sounds of 1971 to Vietnam, civil rights, the British trial of the publishers of the underground newspaper Oz, the Stanford Prison Experiment, the women’s movement and much more.

“The idea was always that it wouldn’t be, ‘Listen to this piece of music, and then this one,’” Kapadia said. “What’s the bigger picture around it? That’s something we previously tried to do with ‘Senna’ and ‘Amy’ and ‘Maradona’ — it’s not just the people, it’s where they’re from and what motivates them. But we had to make some hard choices, because it was a crazy time and there was so much to choose from.”  

The filmmakers traveled around the world interviewing people for the series, with musicians ranging from Elton John to Donny Osmond and producers, executives and journalists chiming in. (Archival interviews with the likes of Bowie and Lennon were incorporated as well.) As is usual for Kapadia’s films, we hear the audio from the interviews his team conducted but never see the people as they’re being interviewed.

“Obviously, I’ve got a problem,” he said with a laugh. “I like seeing people young and beautiful — and particularly in this case, you want to be in that moment, not looking at people the way they look now. The idea was that you’re spending a period of time in 1971, not that you’re jumping forward and backwards.

“It’s not the easiest way to do this — it’s much easier to interview lots of people and just cut to archives, but that was not the vibe we wanted in this series.”

Read more from the Race Begins issue here.

EmmyWrap The Race Begins 2021 cover
illustration by Jon Stich for TheWrap