'Harmonies From Heaven' Gives a Breakneck View of the Everly Brothers

by Jedd Beaudoin

7 November 2016

A little too fast at times for the viewer to fully absorb, this BBC4 doc nevertheless reminds us of the power the Everlys wielded in their heyday.
 
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The Everly Brothers: Harmonies From Heaven

US theatrical: 9 Sep 2016
UK theatrical: 9 Sep 2016

Harmonies From Heaven shines a light on the heyday of Don and Phil Everly during the ‘50s and ‘60s. Originally aired as a BBC 4 special, the documentary features testimonials from a wide array of rockers, including Keith Richards, Graham Nash, Dave Edmunds and Art Garfunkel and, in this new DVD and Blu-Ray edition, previously unissued live performances from 1968 and 1971. The documentary will please fans of those early years, those someone wishing and hoping for something that probes the wilderness years (from a vitriolic 1973 breakup to an Albert Hall reunion a decade on) will have to wait for a different time. Rather than being a sweeping examination of the Brothers, this is a nice thumbnail examination that will allow viewers / fans to remember the duo as they were.

Remember, these two gave a kick to the world of popular music with those impeccable genetic harmonies, smarter-than-you-think rhythms and lyrics that were sometimes teetering on the edge of good taste. Early hits, such as “Bye Bye Love” and “Wake Up Little Susie” (1957) came courtesy of writers Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, who could not have crafted better material for the brothers from Kentucky. Listening to those songs today, one might find that they straddle the line between country and the still young genre of rock. They took rhythms from the hills and the dirt roads and mixed them with lyrics that were universal and, in the case of the latter, topical.

“Wake Up Little Susie” rests on the side of safety because the characters we meet in its lyrics haven’t slept together, though the whole world seems to think they have; had they, they would not have been the first teenagers in history to have engaged in premarital sex, though that would have created a scandal that kept the song and its writers from the charts. Almost, in this case, was good enough. The song created a stir but not enough of one that it didn’t enter the popular consciousness in its time.

Today, those songs and later ones, such as “Cathy’s Clown”, “Crying in the Rain” and “When Will I Be Loved” aren’t heard frequently enough for most music lovers to appreciate the mastery that the Everlys had in their voices, their phrasing and their overall delivery. There have been efforts in recent times, including from The Chapin Sisters (with the impeccable A Date With the Everly Brothers) and Bonnie “Prince” Billy with Dawn McCarthy (via their deep cut-leaning What the Brothers Sang), but somehow or other Don and Phil haven’t experienced the kind of wide-reaching attention that Ira and Charlie Louvin claimed more than a decade ago when they became the it artists to cite in band and artist bios.

The Everlys had their dramas: There were drugs, differences that couldn’t be bridged no matter how hard either party tried, and contracts that complicated their careers in ways that were both deadly and detrimental. We get glimpses of those factors as this picture races through its rising and falling action faster than a hit record from the ‘50s.

Younger artists, such as Jake Bugg and Teddy Thompson, show us how moving the music remains through their testimonials and obvious commitment to the life-altering qualities the music has. Longtime Everly friends such as Paul McCartney and Paul Simon are notable in their absence. Not that we need them there to explain the magnitude of the Everly talents. All one needs for that, as they say, is ears.

As lovely as it all is, the sheer brevity of the thing disappoints and one finds themselves examining the DVD case in the hope that there’s more story to be found somewhere inside the packaging. Of course, that searching is of no avail. Instead, we’re left to pick up scraps here and there, to fill in gaps with the imagination and some of the ink that’s been spilled over this duo in the decades since their career inexplicably dried up on their home soil.

If nothing else, packages such as this can perhaps persuade other filmmakers and music lovers to take a deeper and longer look at this duo. The Everly Brothers are capable of bringing listeners of all eras more joy and enjoyment than the duo’s current standing might suggest.

The Everly Brothers: Harmonies From Heaven

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