Music documentaries have become incredibly ubiquitous in the last decade and, although they’ve yet to wear out their welcome their formulas have become familiar and yet, occasionally, a very, very good one comes along and makes us forget all that we know about the genre as it weaves its magic quickly, quietly, and leaves us spellbound and tongue-tied. Produced By George Martin is such a documentary––one that gives us insight into one of the greatest musical minds of the last century, and even a revealing portrait of the man himself. It’s hard to write about this film and not feel as though one is giving away the best bits––it’s like a great short story or poem or novel that reveals itself to you line by line, each vowel, consonant, syllable worth savoring in a selfish reverie.
The whole story is here: the young man of modest means but powerful intellect that was a natural musician, gifted not only with those talents but also a tirelessly adventurous spirit. We know that he worked for the minor Parlophone label after joining EMI but that he built the label up, one novelty and comedy record at a time. His work with Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers, Rolf Harris, and others––on which he created “sound pictures”––would become influential on a generation of young Brits, including Martin’s best-known clients, the Beatles. But hearing it told here, it sounds marvelous, magical, part of a magical era that will, in a few decades, have finally slipped from our grasp.
As one might expect the story of Martin and the Fab Four occupies a large portion of the film but it’s told tenderly and in such a way that it seems wholly new. He wasn’t fond of the band when he first heard the music, but he liked manager Brian Epstein and agreed to give the band a studio date; meeting them later, interacting with them, he says, he fell in love. And, watching him interact with Paul McCartney and Ring Starr here, you can see that the five really were kindred spirits: their humor is remarkably similar, their rapport unwavering. It’s a relationship that is not entirely father-child but not entirely master and apprentice, either. Whatever the dynamic, it remains one of the great working relationships of all time, impossible to fully understand but nevertheless very easy to examine again and again.
It wasn’t all sunshine and happiness, of course––there was the falling out during the Let It Be era and the reconciliation for Abbey Road. Starr’s feelings were long hurt after Martin––through a series of events that have been explained before and are once more explained here––replaced Ringo with studio drummer Andy White on an early session. Still, the divides didn’t last––Martin produced one of Ringo’s early solo albums––1970’s Sentimental Journey––and worked several more times with Sir Paul.
But Martin worked with countless other acts––even while recording those all-important sides with the Fabs. His touches on Mahavishnu Orchestra’s 1974 Apocalypse are perfection defined and his affection for that recording is palpable here. He worked on Jeff Beck’s 1975 and 1976 classics Blow By Blow and Wired, two albums that are not only essential recordings from that decade but of all time. He made more albums than you think with America, twiddled knobs for fellow aircraft enthusiast Jimmy Webb (there’s a story about these sessions featured in the extras that is priceless), and––though it’s not mentioned in the film––worked on sides by Little River Band, UFO, and Cheap Trick. He also opened AIR Studios in London and in Montserrat. The latter was the toast of the British recording industry through much of the ‘80s with The Police, Dire Straits, and numerous others recording there before it was destroyed by hurricane in 1989.
A visit to the long defunct facilities is, in short, heartbreaking.
Martin actually made little money at EMI––at least early on––despite his uncanny ability to recognize and produce hits. That clearly remains a sensitive issue for him but, now in his mid 80s, he’s unafraid to speak his mind about such matters and, on suspects, has in fact never been afraid to do so at any point in his life. There are the documented struggles with his hearing––which he began losing in his 50s but his family is intact, and his son Giles and wife Judy join him for large portions of the film.
And the music is, as you might expect, unforgettable, whether Peter Gabriel performing George Gershwin’s “Summertime” or Bernard Cribbins performing the novelty hit “Right Said Fred”, or, naturally, the material from McCartney et al. You don’t forget the stuff you know he produced but the material you may not realized was his work takes on new dimensions in this light, such as with the hits he created with America.
A number of guests trickle in, including Michael Palin, Cilla Black, Jeff Beck, Rolf Harris, T Bone Burnett, and Rick Rubin but none are as magical or as charismatic as Martin himself. This is a film that spans generations, musical tastes, and national boundaries. A truly great work about a truly great man.
The Blu-ray and DVD come packed with nearly one hour of bonus material––some of it expanding upon material featured in the film proper, much of it not. That hour or so passes far too quickly and is the rare case of bonus material being as good as anything that’s in the film.