By Jane Kellogg Murray
“Soundbreaking” aims to tell the relatively brief history of sound recording — just over a century — through the collective voices of the music industry’s greatest artists and producers. There is a reason why a project of this scope has never been attempted before. One: it’s an amazing feat to secure this many in-depth interviews (more than 200) with unreachable industry geniuses like Elton John; Roger Waters; and the producer of the Beatles, the late Sir George Martin. And two: it’s damn near impossible to organize so many interviews into a cohesive, succinct series when all is said and done.
The impossible was achieved, for the most part, with award-winning film and television producers Maro Chermayeff and Jeff Dupre. The documentarians devoted years to the project, which premiered at SXSW this week; it should perform well with PBS’s 100 million television viewers when it airs as an 8-part series this November. However, audiences may find the series’ format difficult to digest. Extensive interviews with and about Martin in the first episode could easily make a fascinating documentary all on their own — particularly following his death March 8. Instead, his story is blended among (equally fascinating) stories of producers like Phil Spector and Rick Rubin. The result is overwhelmingly disjointed; at times, it feels like an indecisive teenager flipping between radio stations.
During a Q&A with the audience after the series’ SXSW premiere, the filmmakers explained their editing decisions. “We chose to focus on the human relationships at the heart of all these recordings,” Chermayeff said. “The contrast between them was illuminating.” Dupre continued that finding a way to organize the series was “the hardest part.”
Instead of a timeline, the series is organized thematically: while the first episode focuses on the people, the second tells the story of the recording devices themselves, and how they have evolved over the course of a century. Later topics in the series: how music and video have collided in the age of MTV, and a look at how music went from acoustic to electric. In addition to hundreds of interviews (Adele, Beck, Tom Petty, Paul McCartney — there is certainly no shortage of star power), each episode includes rare archival footage painstakingly hand-picked from more than 80 years worth of material.
While “Soundbreaking” has its faults, the documentary is unique in that it tells a story not about music, but the art of producing it. In an era where music is more ubiquitous than it has ever been, the series gives an inside look at the magic behind the scenes — in a way that the outside world can begin to understand what goes into making it.
“Soundbreaking – Stories from the Cutting Edge of Recorded Music” will preview once more during SXSW on March 17, 5:15 p.m., at the Alamo Drafthouse on Slaughter Lane. The series will premiere on PBS November 14.