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TV Review: ‘1971: The Year That Music Changed Everything’ is a Phenomenal Insight at Popular Music’s Greatest (And Most Tumultuous) Year

The starting point for Asif Kapadia’s Apple TV+’s miniseries, 1971: The Year That Music Changed Everything is Marvin Gaye’s masterpiece, What’s Going On, which was hailed as the greatest album of all-time by Rolling Stone in September of 2020, a mere 49 years after its initial release. Gaye’s album was initially met with lots of mixed criticisms, as it was unafraid to ask moral questions on the Vietnam War, climate change, religion, world hunger, Heroin addiction, racial inequality, and urban poverty, which distanced an artist commonly known for love ballads and confronted its audience with a politically charged album that held nothing back. Gaye’s prophetic lyrics and revolutionary musical compositions (in which he would overlap his own vocals by harmonizing with himself) changed music history forever, with its central question still remaining unanswered today. Gaye’s album was only the tip of the iceberg, however, as the start of a slew of countercultural movements of Black artists through music, in 1971, from Gil Scott-Heron’s Pieces of a Man to Isaac Hayes’ Oscar-winning theme to Gordon ParksShaft, a blaxploitation film created during the golden year of New Hollywood.

In the series, Kapadia and his episode directors James Rogan and Danielle Peck, start with music’s countercultural response to the Vietnam War, but quickly shifts to the rise to fame of new artists, which include Tina Turner, David Bowie, Elton John, The Rolling Stones, Carole King, Joni Mitchell and many (many) more. Through archival footage and audio clips, which replace the traditional documentary’s “talking heads”, Kapadia and his co-directors are able to craft the most complete and insightful portrait of popular music’s greatest-ever (and most tumultuous) year.

Recent music documentaries, such as Howard, Zappa, Laurel Canyon or The Go-Go’s lacked serious and profound insight, above superficial tidbits or “fun facts” about the artists the film and/or series are trying to present. 1971: The Year That Music Changed Everything completely understand  from the get-go, that the only way to make this eight-episode miniseries as compelling as possible is by giving the audience insight they’ve never heard of before, which is exclusively achieved through audio and video archival footage. Kapadia et al. manipulate the footage to not only dictate the episodes’ central narrative through lines, but to also give brilliant insight on the themes an episode will treat. For example, episode two, titled “End of the Acid Dream”, mainly focuses on the rise of hard drugs, and how many artists abused of these drugs to create revolutionary sounds—which contributed to the fame of bands like The Rolling Stones, but also destroyed the life of other singer/songwriters, like Jim Morrison of The Doors. The archival footage used in this episode have one sole purpose: to reflect how drugs were used and perceived in 1971. The same with “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”, where archival footage will now present how Black artists’ voices became more heard, as counter-culture’s upheaval against the Nixon government grew stronger.

What’s most astounding in this series is how one piece of archival footage seamlessly links to another completely different sphere of music, from Tina Turner to Isaac Hayes or how the series begins with What’s Going On and ends with the album that officially “killed” the 60s, David Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, which contributed to the “birth” of the Bowie we knew and loved. 1971 was not only an important year for counter-culture and protest songs, but a pivotal one for experimentation and rejecting any preestablished musical norms that were (mostly) established by The Beatles: clear-cut and clean band members delivering insatiably catchy rock songs. When The Beatles broke up, John Lennon and George Harrison, respectively, became more political, whether it was protesting against the imprisonment of Oz Magazine editors or hosting a benefit concert to raise awareness on the genocide in Bangladesh, following the Liberation War, and deliver financial relief to East Pakistan refugees. In Harrison and Lennon’s music, it wasn’t clear-cut and clean anymore, since it wasn’t afraid to raise social and political awareness on the social issues of the year, without caring what Beatles fan would think of it.

As more “traditional” bands broke up, the emergence of artists such as Alice Cooper and Elton John, who weren’t afraid to provoke through either their costumes (mostly in the case of John, who wasn’t afraid to come out of the classic pianist/singer routine by showcasing a wide array of over-the-top costumes) and performances that never kowtowed to what a typical audience would like, paved the way for more experimentation and innovation in the field of music. Without any of the artists that emerged and/or skyrocketed in 1971, in what direction would music be these days? What if David Bowie never released Ziggy Stardust, or Marvin Gaye decided that What’s Going On would be too provocative? What would’ve happened? This is the biggest lingering question the series asks during its final moment, as it rapidly showcases a panorama of well-known artists that emerged post-1971 to today, which include Michael Jackson, The Police, Grace Jones, Prince, Queen, Run-DMC, Whitney Huston, 2pac, Kanye West and ends with Billie Eilish.

From Marvin Gaye to Billie Eilish, music has drastically evolved over the years in new and exciting spheres—but to ask ourselves how music would be different had Gaye never released his masterpiece is an odd question to ask ourselves. Without the prophetic power of What’s Going On, music wouldn’t have changed everything, as the album directly inspired artists like John Lennon and George Harrison to speak up on social issues they deemed important, which then created a domino effect of more singers using their platform to enact change and raise important questions to their listeners. Without Gaye’s bold experimentation with instruments and harmonies, there might’ve been many artists that we know and love that probably wouldn’t exist. Gaye’s album changed everything, not only through its lyrics and presentation of social issues that weren’t explored before, but also changed the way music is now perceived and listened. Music is no longer mere entertainment, but an art form that has refused to conform to the masses and constantly evolved itself into something new, original, exciting, with artists taking even bigger risks to uplift voices and speak truth to power to their fans. Once Marvin Gaye refused to conform to his pre-conceived identity as “The Sound of Young America” to ask, “What’s Going On?”, music was never the same. And as we’ll be celebrating the 50th anniversary of the album’s release on May 21st, now is the perfect time to dive into the highly exhaustive 1971: The Year That Music Changed Everything, hitting Apple TV+ on the same day.

It’s the most important project Kapadia has conceived in his career as a documentarian, as it serves as a reminder that, even if music has changed and evolved into something greater, nothing has fundamentally changed when it comes to many of the world’s issues. We’re still stuck with same problems Gaye exposed 50 years later, and many of them have worsened, in particular the environmental question. Gaye asks, in Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology), “What about this overcrowded land? How much more abuse from men can she stand?” It’s the single most important lyric of Gaye’s album—one that still rings truer today than it did in 1971 and many elements Kapadia and his co-directors focus on in the series ring truer than ever before. Now, more than ever, we need to ask ourselves “What’s Going On” and take action on Gaye’s pleas before the world continues to eat itself up, quicker and more viciously than it did 50 years ago. Simply put, 1971: The Year That Music Changed Everything is one of the most important documentaries on music ever made and should be on your watchlist immediately. Do not miss it.

Score: ★★★★

1971: The Year That Music Changed Everything will be available to stream on Apple TV+ on May 21st


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Written by Maxance Vincent

Maxance Vincent is a freelance film and TV critic, and a recent graduate of a BFA in Film Studies at the Université de Montréal. He is currently finishing a specialization in Video Game Studies, focusing on the psychological effects regarding the critical discourse on violent video games.

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