PBS’s Soundbreaking documentary series, premiering this November, offers a rare, personal glimpse “behind the glass” for music fans: Produced in association with the late Sir George Martin, the eight-part series tells the story of recorded music through archival studio footage and interviews with more than 150 artists, producers, and innovators including Glyn Johns, Brian Eno, Rick Rubin, Malcolm Cecil, Tiësto, Tony Visconti, Linda Perry, Hans Zimmer, and Dave Grohl.
I sat down with producer/director Jeff Dupre at the San Francisco Film Festival to learn more about this celebration of the people who shape music.
This documentary is more about the human element—emotion, experimentation, relationships—than an encyclopedic history of recording. How did the series reveal itself?
The subject of music recording is incredibly rich and varied. We were not interested in creating a chronological survey of how recording technology evolved. We decided instead to take a thematic approach, so each episode delves into a different aspect of music recording. The first episode looks at what a record producer does—and we see that at the heart of so many great records are these delicate human relationships, whether between Elvis and Sam Phillips, George Martin and The Beatles, or Rick Rubin and Johnny Cash. In Episode Two, we look at multitrack recording and how the evolution of that technology transformed the sound of popular music. We go on to look at the art of recording the voice, the electrification and amplification of instruments, the evolution of the rhythm track, the art of sampling, the art of the music video, and then at distribution formats and how they impact the art that is created. The thematic structure enabled us to zero in on great stories of how artists use their ingenuity and imagination to create new sounds.
Did George Martin have a fully-formed idea for a narrative going in?
George felt that the story of recorded music had never been properly told and he felt the subject merited a series of this scale to do it justice. If you think about it, no other art form has touched all of our lives in quite the same way. Records are these remarkable, intricately constructed devices that do something extraordinary: In a world where so many forces conspire to make us feel nothing at all, a song enables us to connect with and inhabit our emotions, and therefore to be more fully human.
So rather than begin with Edison and the invention of the phonograph, we decided to look at the moment when recording itself came of age as an art form, in the ’60s. Producers and engineers were finding out all the marvelous things you could do with magnetic tape and multitrack recording, and in walk The Beatles. Through his work with The Beatles, George created a paradigm for pop music, creating music that was so stunning and new that it came to define the time in which it was released.
Soundbreaking celebrates this paradigm and how it has played itself out over the past 50 years, how the baton was passed on from one generation to the next. We focus on artists who created new sounds that reflected their world and that opened a doorway to the future. Stevie Wonder’s departure from the Motown Sound to create a wholly new sound using the Tonto synthesizer; James Brown’s decision to make every instrument sound like a drum, which was the genesis of funk. Jimi Hendrix’s sonic fantasies, Giorgio Moroder’s minimal and hypnotic dance tracks…and so on.
The series features incredible rare and unseen studio footage. How did you source that material?
Led by producer Amy Schewel, our archival research team spent years sourcing the best footage and photographs to tell the story visually. The key factor is having the time to find the best material. Sometimes you have to wait until it comes bubbling to the surface.
You distilled 700 hours of interviews with 230 artists into eight hours. What were the hardest things to let go, and will we be seeing any of those materials in the next iterations of this project?
On the one hand, we feel the series has a huge number of legendary artists. On the other hand, we feel we’ve just scratched the surface! While each episode in Soundbreaking includes contemporary artists, we’d like to include even more of them next time around.
At the festival screening, you said that you hoped this series will give music lovers a new context in which to appreciate a song. What do you hope the studio stories behind the music will add to that experience?
There are times when you find out something new about someone in your life, and it deepens your love and appreciation of that person. That’s what we hope Soundbreaking will do for our audience. We hope they’ll learn something new about a song they love, what makes it tick, how it was created, and they’ll come to love and appreciate the song even more.