'Soundbreaking: Stories From the Cutting Edge of Recorded Music': TV Review

Courtesy of PBS
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PBS' don't-miss eight-part documentary starts Monday night and features a cross-pollination of artists and producers talking about the evolution of sound.

There is a moment in Soundbreaking: Stories From the Cutting Edge of Recorded Music, the eight-part music documentary that begins Monday on PBS, when musician-producer Brian Eno is talking about The Beatles recording an album, and he utters a simple, declarative sentence: "The band had started making music that you literally could not play outside of a recording studio." The very concept of it seems to blow his mind as he says it.

There are tons of seemingly minor (but in reality, major) revelatory moments in recorded music history, and they are more joyfully understood when someone who either makes or produces music is eloquently or hilariously recalling them. Like when Eno has that little wonder of a smile at the thought, which nobody in rock music had prior to The Beatles, of making an album you couldn't really play live. Before that, bands either played a song from beginning to end and hoped not to mess it up in the process, or, with the advent of tape, found some refuge from mistakes but still essentially tried to craft a song in the studio that would be played exactly the same way in front of a crowd.

The Beatles, of course, not only couldn't play in front of crowds at a certain point because the crowds were louder than the music, but they had brilliant producer George Martin helping them execute heretofore unknown tricks in the studio. In many ways, Martin, The Beatles and multitrack tinkering inside a studio is the starting point for Soundbreaking, a documentary about the history of recorded music that leaps thrillingly past the dryness of its simple ambition and becomes in the process an essential viewing experience and a gift to music lovers.

While Soundbreaking is not the kind of linear, molecular reconstruction of history that Ken Burns might have made — the series veers off on non-chronological detours and then bounces back — it's always riveting.

The documentary is a passion project that started with Martin (who died six days prior to the British premiere of Soundbreaking), the company Higher Ground and the Show of Force production company (spearheaded by producers Maro Chermayeff and Jeff Dupre, who also directs here) as they tried to create something that would document not only the history of recorded music but be a useful tool in classrooms to help educate the next generation of artists and fans.

It doesn't take long to see how effectively Soundbreaking illustrates (with more than 160 interviews with famous musicians and producers) the early innovations. A bevy of influential producers like Daniel Lanois, Eno, Quincy Jones, Don Was — and of course Martin himself — talk about acts from Elvis Presley to Public Enemy and on to Adele, as well as a cross-section of numerous others from various decades, showing how their music and the way it was recorded reshaped sound.

What makes this all work is not strictly sticking to a timeline. Yes, there's plenty of stuff about early Sun Records recordings and legendary producer Sam Phillips, segueing pretty easily and quickly into Phil Spector and his "wall of sound" (which, by the way, is explained and illustrated with real grace). But elsewhere, Soundbreaking does a wonderful job of talking about Joni Mitchell, connecting her to Questlove and Sly and the Family Stone, then to early hip-hop and back to The Beatles and Martin again. These circular pathways are effective at telling the greater story of the advancements in recording technology and techniques, without the series getting bogged down in one sound or coming off as dry and didactic. A documentary about music better move you in various ways, and Soundbreaking does just that.

Little moments stand out. Like Tom Petty saying he didn't really have a song in "Free Fallin'" until producer Jeff Lynne told him a random snippet was brilliant; how numerous musicians recall the Spector "wall of sound" sessions; and Paul McCartney talking about The Beatles' rivalry with The Beach Boys, and how Pet Sounds vs. Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was one of the great one-upmanship moments in music. Of course some of this is clearly familiar ground for music fans, but much of it isn't. And beyond that, the small moments being retold by people not directly involved — like when Roger Waters from Pink Floyd recalls the band pulling off the road when "Sgt. Pepper" was played on the radio for the first time and flipping out with jealousy — are the best moments.

There's also tons of intimacy in the connections made on Soundbreaking, as when hip-hop and rap discussions can bring in Rick Rubin from Def Jam and then show Rubin's Def American label enabling the rousing late-career comeback of Johnny Cash.

Early on, it all comes back to The Beatles and Martin. But even if you think you've heard too much about The Beatles in your lifetime, there's still something about having other musicians or producers hone in on how revolutionary they were in the studio and what the sound that came out of the speakers did to them. "They did it first and it revolutionized the way people worked in studios," says Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich. The rulebook, he said, was out the window. The sound was, in fact, broken. And, as Martin notes, it wasn't so much recording anymore as it was "painting with sound."

What happened next, and continues to happen, as explained by numerous artists and producers from across all genres shouldn't be missed if you love music.

Airs: Monday through Friday at 10 p.m. on PBS. (Check your local listings.)