When James Gay-Rees, along with fellow executive producer Asif Kapadia, started to put together a docuseries about the music of 1971, they had to answer the basic question of what made that year so pivotal. “We realized it was a very tumultuous and very pivotal year in the sense that the sixties had come to this kind of crashing end with Kent State, Altamont, Charles Manson and The Beatles spitting up in December 1970,” Gay-Rees explains to Gold Derby in our Meet the Experts: Television Documentary panel (watch the exclusive video interview above). From seeing how the sixties ended, it clearly set up everything that was to follow in the next decade. “So all that kind of optimism of the sixties was replaced by the golden age of paranoia, Nixon, you know, bugging the White House and Vietnam in full effect.”
“1971: The Year That Music Changed Everything” chronicles the turbulent status that the world was in at that time and the amazing music that come out of it. Among the musical milestones of the titular year are “What’s Going On?” by Marvin Gaye, “Imagine” by John Lennon, “Tapestry” by Carole King, “Who’s Next” by The Who, “Sticky Fingers” by The Rolling Stones, “Hunky Dory” by David Bowie and “Pieces of a Man” by Gil Scott-Heron just to name a few. Gay-Rees is a frequent producer for Kapadia including Kapadia’s 2015 film, “Amy,” about Amy Winehouse which won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature.
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One of the moments from hours of interviews conducted for the series that stood out to Gay-Rees was listening to Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders recall the horrific tragedy that occurred at Kent State University in 1970. “The series opens with her, cause the series series opens with Kent State, the shootings at Kent State, which leads Neil Young to write, ‘Ohio.'” It marked the perfect springboard to launch the first episode of the series. “That’s the first protest song. It takes us into the series and hearing her firsthand account of being a student at Kent State was pretty, pretty extraordinary, obviously because she’s never spoken about it before.”
As for Gay-Rees’s favorite music from that time, his personal favorite is a bit conventional, but still a worthy choice. “It’s not exactly a surprising choice, but ‘What’s Going On?’ by Marvin Gaye. I mean, you know, that that record will still be played in 50 years time, because it’s just such a untouchable classic piece of work.” He also is quick to consider the fact that the messages of the album still resonate to this day. “In some ways things have got better, but in some ways, things haven’t got better enough, and you know, there’s that old cliché springs to mind, ‘The more things change, the more to stay the same.’ You know, we haven’t made as much progress as we think have.”
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