Warner Bros. // 1995 // 578 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Joel Pearce (Retired) // August 19th, 2004
10 titanic hours of the greatest rock extravaganza ever.
In 1995, Time Life created a documentary that would cover the growth and development of rock 'n' roll from the early 1950s to the mid '90s. Warner has now released a DVD edition of this series that's remastered into Dolby 5.1 and placed across five discs. The result is a fantastic package that is sure to delight music fans.
It would be completely impossible to create a linear narrative for the history of rock 'n' roll. There have been so many streams of influence and ideas that they could never all be followed at the same time. Fortunately, the developers of this set realized that, and so instead of trying to accomplish the impossible, they set out to look at each of the major threads of musical influence in a single episode, tying those to other musical ideas as necessary. As a result, each of the ten episodes can be enjoyed individually, but also fit into the set as a whole. I will do my best to quickly sum up these episodes:
* "Rock 'N' Roll Explodes"
"If you turn out to be a musician, everything you've ever heard comes out in what you play" -- Keith Richards
The first episode of The History of Rock 'N' Roll performs two functions. The first function is to give an overview of where the whole documentary is heading. The second function is to take a look at where rock originated, and who the first pioneers were in what would eventually become rock 'n' roll music. These two functions can be performed at the same time because the rest of the set basically follows through on the threads that are introduced in this segment. There are a number of interviews with various performers, interspersed with segments about blues, country, gospel, and jazz music, all of which would come together in Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, and Little Richard. We do get to see a wide range of opinions and ideas, which carries on through the rest of the series. This first episode is decent, although many of the performers that are interviewed talk in very broad and quasi-philosophical terms about the eternal and absolute power of rock 'n' roll, which sounds quite silly at times.
"About every ten years, everything breaks down to the lowest common denominator, and then it builds back up, to the same old shit -- but the only thing that survives is rock and roll" -- Eddie Van Halen
* "Good Rockin' Tonight"
"We might be doing as much with our music as our leaders are in Washington to break down the barriers" -- attributed to Chuck Berry
This second episode explores the roots and early development of rock 'n' roll in the '50s. It pays homage to the incredible black artists that first created the sound, but struggled because of the race problems that still existed throughout the United States at this time. It amazes me that it was only 50 years ago that some of these things were happening. Although I think we still have a long way to go in terms of equality, I think that this episode is fair in casting the music industry as one of the major forces that initiated real change in civil rights. The real highlight of the episode is not what the music was doing, though, but instead on the music itself. The episode gives equal time to the black artists such as Chuck Berry and Little Richard as well as the white artists like Elvis and Buddy Holly that took that adopted the sound as it gained popularity among the American youth. This episode was fascinating, because it celebrates what was happening at the time in the music without ignoring the problems that were going on in the country at the same time. More than anything, we can't ignore those earliest black artists that made rock 'n' roll possible.
* "Britain Invades, America Fights Back"
"What was more important than the music you played was where the music you played originated" -- Pete Townshend
After the first golden age in American rock 'n' roll, the next big wave would not come from America, but rather from Britain. This episode starts with The Beatles, whose massive popularity on both sides of the Atlantic changed the way that rock 'n' roll was perceived. When the Beatles and the Rolling Stones broke into America, it caused a kind of rabid fandom that even the fans of Elvis were never able to match. America was quick to respond to this new threat, which meant that bands were no longer trying to sound like Chuck Berry and Elvis, but starting to search for their own sound and building in technical proficiency. Because of this, the British invasion allowed for a rapid growth of style through the '60s. The broad popularity that came out of this time is one of the things that allowed for the music industry to become a genuine industry over the next several decades as well. This era also brought out a number of the key figures for the next few decades, such as Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood, and the members of The Who and The Rolling Stones.
"Fame, if you have too much of it, is a pretty heavy penance, and it got very wearing, in danger of destroying their lives. -- George Martin, Beatles' Producer
* "The Sounds of Soul"
"Everything we did live came out of soul music" -- Bruce Springsteen
At the same time as the British invasion was hitting America in full force, there was another important musical institution making waves in various parts of the country. Black musicians were once again pioneering a new sound, calling on black gospel music as well as blues and jazz. Maybe more than any other episode, the music from these artists sounds every bit as good and fresh as they did over forty years ago. James Brown, Jackie Wilson, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, the Motown artists...all of these and more are represented here with great concert footage that speaks for itself. The racism issue rears its ugly head again here, but when the Motown movement started its own label, it opened the floodgates for black music to hit the top of the charts. This episode is a celebration of a great musical movement. Toward the end of this era, the music also began to hold strong political messages, which set the stage for what would happen to rock 'n' roll in the late '60s.
"Eventually, we adopted the slogan 'the sound of young America', because that's what we were." -- Smokey Robinson
* "Plugging In"
"You had the Dylan influence on the lyrics and the Beatles' influence on the music, and a whole new music was born." -- Al Kooper
This fifth episode begins with one of the most innovative rock 'n' roll artists ever, and ends with another. The episode opens with Bob Dylan, who made waves when he went all electric at the Newport folk festival and infuriated his own fans. He is the one who brought the beat poetry movement into rock 'n' roll, which pushed other bands into doing more intellectually challenging material. The music of this period was heavily influenced by technological developments as well. Bands were now able to go all electric, and FM radio meant that higher quality recordings could be broadcast to listeners everywhere. The result was albums like The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds and the later albums of the Beatles. The other key moment on this episode is the Monterey Pop festival and the explosion of Jimi Hendrix, who did things with the guitar that the other key musicians of the time hadn't even dreamed of yet. This episode marks another big shift in the direction of rock 'n' roll.
"There was something really important happening, which was that this great music that we'd discovered -- this music that is still growing -- this music that you could now right songs about what's happening deep, deep, deep inside you and around you in the world, and also sound extraordinary." -- Pete Townshend
* "My Generation"
"Sex, drugs...those were the things they were using to sell rock 'n' roll, which seems a damn shame, when you get down to it. The music is certainly capable of doing that on its own" -- Levon Hand
This episode looks at the peak of the movement that began with Bob Dylan in the last episode, and its subsequent crash into death and disaster. It begins by looking at the antics that this generation of rockers would be remembered for, and the influence that lifestyle had on the San Francisco movement. The second half of the episode looks at the trajectory from Woodstock to the Isle of Wight. Woodstock remains fondly remembered by many as the height of this period, a celebration of the music and artists that exploded into something far bigger than was originally planned. When producers realized how much money could be made through these festivals, it began a series of them that culminated in festival on the Isle of Wight, which proved that the peak of Woodstock simply could not be maintained. By this point, fans expecting the performers to continue on for free were angry at the artists, and the whole hippie movement came to a grinding halt. Shortly after this came the death of some of the greatest figures in rock 'n' roll history, such as Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, and Keith Moon. Rock would have to redefine itself again after this, once again transforming into something else. This episode is a great continuation from the previous one, which together give an accurate and comprehensive look at the music of the '60s.
"How well would Hendrix be playing now? What would Janis be singing like now? We're talking major stuff here -- the genius that got dropped to the floor and ground into the dirt" -- Dave Crosby
* "Guitar Heroes"
"You're always cursing, and you're always praying, and you're always making love. It 'aint do re mi fa so la ti do." -- Carlos Santana
"Guitar Heroes" stands out as a bit of an anomaly in this set. Instead of looking at a particular movement or era in rock 'n' roll, it looks at the instrument that has been an important part of the sound of rock from the very beginning. The episode gives a brief overview of the history of the electric guitar, and has a lot of interviews and concert footage of some of rock's biggest guitar legends. It is true that each of these players has a totally distinct sound, and that technical proficiency on the guitar has become a very important part of the growth of rock 'n' roll. Some of the statements made throughout are a little overblown, but it's still an interesting episode with some of the best performance footage in the whole documentary (and a great clip from This is Spinal Tap).
"If you have a great guitar and a great amplifier, I believe you can conquer the world" -- Paul Stanley
* "The '70s: Have a Nice Decade"
"The decline of the Roman Empire is what happened in the '70s." -- Pete Townshend
The music of the '70s was born from the ashes of the huge popularity of the bands that were famous in the previous decade. Everything became bigger and bolder, transforming into the big business of the contemporary music industry. Another major thing that happened in the '70s was a major diversification of musical elements. Bands like Led Zeppelin (grossly underrepresented in this collection) returned to blues, while funk bands referred back to soul, and Carlos Santana and Bob Marley introduced new sounds. Higher quality studios and synthesizers meant it was possible to create albums like Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon. The dark side of the '70s happened when these elements were taken to their extremes. The push toward musical proficiency of the earlier decades was sometimes abandoned for theatrics, and the reliance of synthesizers led to the cultural abomination known as disco. This episode does an admirable job of exploring the good and the bad of this decade, and leads well into the newer movements covered in the last two episodes.
"The '70s, for me, was a time when I felt really grounded in the music that I was making." -- Bruce Springsteen
"Suffice it to say, Iggy [Pop] was a lot more dangerous than Jim Morrison, who might be waving his penis around onstage in Miami. With Iggy, you thought that he might take the whole crowd with him." -- Legs McNeil
Throughout the early episodes that focused on the black artists in America, the social statements were tempered by an exuberance and joy for the music that I found both impressive and hard to understand. The punk movement that came out of London was a completely different beast, created in anger and decay. Forming bands was something that the disenfranchised youth could do that gave them a chance to find some measure of success. The attitude and sound of the American Iggy Pop were picked up by Velvet Underground, The Ramones, and The Talking Heads, and punk became a much bigger movement in Britain than it ever did in North America. Whether or not that's because of the British tendency toward class warfare is unclear, but either way the infamy and complete lack of musical talent that was personified in The Sex Pistols was never fully replicated on this side of the Atlantic. As the audiences began to devolve, the punk movement sort of dissolved when the safety of the bands started to be threatened. The anger that began the punk movement also killed it, or at least sent it into hibernation until bands like Nirvana showed up in the early '90s. This episode taught me a lot that I didn't know about punk music, and treats it with as much respect as everything else in the documentary has been.
"And everything went along just great until, at some point, the audiences went from being relatively intelligent, understanding and interesting people to...scary young people that liked to spit at the bands a lot who wielded chains and beat up people who had long hair." -- Exene Cervenka
* "Up from the Underground"
"There are a lot of artists that are using music in a not-so-central way, something else is the center of what they're doing...Madonna, people don't like her because she uses music as part of the package for herself. I say why not, if that's what she wants to do, why does music have to be the center of the thing?" -- Brian Eno
Once again turning the focus to the technological development of the music, this final episode looks at how rock 'n' roll (if it can indeed still be called that) has been influenced by the music video medium. MTV has been able to completely change how we understood music, shifting the focus from the musical performance to a visual spectacle. Live performances that were once rare and exciting became mundane, as music videos of favorite bands could suddenly be accessed multiple times per day. This new medium also allowed rap and hip-hop to spread from the street corners of urban America to the mainstream (after MTV got into legal trouble and were forced to start playing black content). Once again, it was the black artists that were establishing the rules of this new format, pushing the boundaries and making strong political statements. More than anything, this new medium allowed rock artists to successfully present a complete image instead of just a sound. Madonna and Michael Jackson were notable figures that were able to do this. As well, MTV pushed rock 'n' roll to the farthest reaches of the world.
"The conveyances that give us rock 'n' roll are contributing more to the change in society than rock itself." -- David Bowie
"It's inevitable for music to become watered down...but the point of keeping it rebellious is to keep people's awareness alive as long as you can." -- Krs-One
As I was writing these episode summaries, I realized just how much ground this series covers. There are so many anecdotes, highlights, great performances and quotations that I would have loved to include but simply couldn't.
Although the set is first and foremost about the music itself, the creators of The History of Rock 'N' Roll never forget to look outside of the music in order to try and understand it. After all, rock didn't develop in a vacuum, and I was impressed with the honesty and social awareness of both the creators and the rock stars that were interviewed. Our recent history is full of embarrassing incidents, which were barely glossed over in the writing of this series.
As well, I think that this is the definitive examination of rock 'n' roll primarily because it doesn't try to make definitive statements. Although it can't be denied that Jimi Hendrix changed the guitar world, there is still controversy over the musical developments of the '70s and whether it's good that MTV and music videos changed the face of rock 'n' roll. Both sides of these and other arguments are included here, which makes for much more interesting viewing.
Technically, Warner has given this series the royal treatment. They certainly wouldn't have been expected to remaster it all into Dolby 5.1, but they did anyway. The sound quality varies considerably depending on the state of the source material, but it's obvious that the music has been cleaned up as much as possible. There are a number of rare performances here, probably sounding about as good as they ever had. The voices in the interviews are never hard to understand. The surround channels are largely ignored, but the mixing into 5.1 allowed the voices and music to be spread across the front sound stage in a way that would have been impossible with a stereo track.
The video quality is less impressive than the audio, but it's still evident that work has been put into the restoration of this footage. Overall, the transfer is as good as can be expected for a production originally shot for home video release. Some of the old footage looks pretty worn, but not more than expected. Really, though, I doubt anyone is going to be buying this set for the picture quality.
My main complaint about this set is not what is included, but what wasn't included. Many references were made to bands that played on the Ed Sullivan show, but no footage from it is present. There is practically no concert footage from either The Beatles or Led Zeppelin, and although the members of Metallica are interviewed a number of times, the heavier rock movement that they are a part of was not mentioned on the set at all. I am sure this is because Time Life was not able to get the rights to some of this material, but it still makes the set seem incomplete.
I also would have liked to have seen some extras on the set. I know it's far too much to ask for an eleventh episode that covers what has happened between 1995 and 2004, but that would have been a really nice addition. Some of the footage on the last disc includes performers who were popular in 1995, but haven't stood the test of time in the way that the great artists from the early episodes have. At very least, it would have been cool to get some additional interviews looking back at what this documentary accomplished and how well it stands up now in the eyes of the stars that were interviewed. As it stands, the set doesn't have any extra features at all.
The other thing that would have been awesome to see on this set is an isolated music score, eliminating the interviews completely in favor of a chance to just hear the music. Even an additional CD or two with some of the best tracks would have been a way for viewers to hear some of these classic songs uninterrupted by Tom Petty pontificating about various musicians and movements. Alas, we are only ever able to enjoy these songs in snippets.
Still, the problems with this set are all in the "wouldn't that have been sweet" category rather than the "boy, Warner really dropped the ball" category.
If you are a fan of rock 'n' roll from any era, you need to watch this series. Those with less knowledge about the history of rock will learn plenty of cool things and discover some new artists to check out. Experts in the field will also want to see it, though, for the rare performances and compelling interviews. There were a few episodes that I wasn't looking forward to because of how I felt about the music that was represented, but Time Life has done such a great job with this series that I came out appreciating these genres a lot more. This is one of the best documentaries that I have ever seen, and should be considered required viewing for any music fan.
No-one has ever been able to cage the sounds of rock 'n' roll, and I have no desire to try. The defendants have been found not guilty on all charges.
Review content copyright © 2004 Joel Pearce; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 578 Minutes
Release Year: 1995
MPAA Rating: Not Rated