[22 July 2008]
At first glance, the wealth of footage in Tony Palmer’s All You Need Is Love, a 17-part, 15-hour documentary on the history of popular music originally broadcast in the 1970s, seems to make an independent argument for the series’ overall merit. In the first two episodes alone, Palmer’s cameras yield visceral live footage of Jerry Lee Lewis, punching his piano and threatening the lens; Ray Charles, unleashing an electric piano solo of unusual ecstasy and control; Buddy Rich, demonstrating the proper way to fly off the handle on a drum kit; and Fela Kuti and his band, conjuring a tempest of human emotion with the simple perpetuation of a hard-hitting vamp—not to mention the amount of archival footage of artists like Charlie Parker, Woody Guthrie, and Billie Holiday, thought to be non-existent at the time but familiar now, and insightful interviews with the likes of Amiri Baraka, Jerry Wexler, and John Hammond about the “compromise” of pop music and “political question” of white America’s exploitation of black musical forms. Wowza.
All You Need Is Love was an incredibly audacious undertaking when it was originally produced in the 1970s, and although its style, tone, and contentions can appear dated to a contemporary audience, it remains an impressive achievement even today. Palmer’s scope is so far-reaching that rock ‘n’ roll doesn’t even make an appearance until the 13th episode, following evaluations of ragtime, jazz, blues, vaudeville, Tin Pan Alley, musicals, and R&B, among others. (The Beatles, however, do receive an entire episode dedicated to them.) The very resurrection of the series is cause for celebration in the pop community, as it has never been commercially released or re-broadcast since it originally aired, three decades ago, and even now remains in some back-corner depot of public obscurity.
For many, the onslaught of live performances, from Liberace and Pat Boone to the Rolling Stones and Stevie Wonder (who performs a solo take of “You Are the Sunshine of My Life”), and interviews with an inelegantly wasted Phil Spector (on “River Deep, Mountain High”: “That record sounds like God hit the world and the world hit back”), righteous Lester Bangs (“The ascendance of [Roxy Music] is an indication of the level to which rock ‘n’ roll has sunk”), and profound Pete Seeger (“We sing to forget our troubles, but we also sing to understand our troubles, and occasionally we sing to inspire ourselves to do something about our troubles”) will make the owning of All You Need Is Love a no-brainer.
That wealth of footage, however, also doubles as the crux of the series’ many shortcomings. As with any massive project with comprehensive intentions, All You Need Is Love lacks a clear narrative, and often ends up a muddle of music, message, and meaning. Palmer’s editing frequently suggests that he simply had too much footage to draw from, even for a series of this size; clips are sometimes arbitrarily assembled, often without context or explanation, and Palmer complicates his intended thesis—that all popular music is, at its core, a theft and dilution of black music—with juxtaposed absurdities and dubious suggestions. These include the sounds of a Leonard Cohen-led protest rally over images of a roller derby, random shots of Disneyland within the R&B episode, a recorded track dubbed over concert footage of Ike & Tina Turner, and, in a move that’s either accidental or subversive, Ray Charles’ assertion of the blues as a three-chord form is invalidated by footage of him performing “Georgia on My Mind”, a song with a more complex structure.
The series’ potential as a watchable mess slowly devolves into a plain ol’ mess with diminishing returns. Each episode has script and narration by a different person, many of them British and dry, and most of them lacking a compelling narrative flow. The episode on country music rambles along with lots of random footage of anonymous country folk playing music, and no real investigation of the popularization of the genre. Likewise, the blues episode favors clips of marginal figures like Memphis Slim and Roosevelt Sykes. Jazz receives a conservative and revisionist evaluation, one that includes the antiquated opinion that the genre peaked with Bix Beiderbecke. (Though there’s a brief clip of Miles Davis, neither he nor other titans like John Coltrane receive any sort of lip service.) Perhaps most inconceivable, James Brown is passed over in the R&B episode in favor of an extended look, however ironic, at traveling “white gospel” groups.
In its final episode, “Imagine: New Directions”, All You Need Is Love leaves us with Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells as a future of music. It’s a bogus claim, at best, like so many made within the series’ compelling yet frustrating 15 hours, and speaks not to the enduring quality of popular music, but to its more ephemeral nature, a fleeting thing as brash as it is disposable.