For pop music, it was a year of the deep dive

For pop music, it was a year of the deep dive

Smart and intense documentaries brought people closer to world-famous musicians and bands

The Velvet Underground is one of the most influential bands in rock. An eponymous film pays tribute to the band. NYT

The pandemic, it seems, sent certain enterprising music lovers into editing rooms. For those still leery of gathering for a live concert, the 2021 consolation prize was not a slew of ephemeral livestreams, but an outpouring of smart, intent music documentaries that weren’t afraid to stretch past two hours long. With screen time begging to be filled, it was the year of the deep dive.

Those documentaries included a binge-watch of the Beatles at work in Peter Jackson’s 'The Beatles: Get Back'; a visual barrage to conjure musical disruption in Todd Haynes’ 'Velvet Underground'; far-reaching commentary atop ecstatic performances from the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival in Questlove’s 'Summer of Soul'; and a surprisingly candid chronicle of Billie Eilish’s whirlwind career — at 16, 17 and 18 years old — in RJ Cutler’s 'The World’s a Little Blurry'.

The Velvet Underground, in its early days, was simultaneously a soundtrack and a canvas for Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable, a multimedia club-sized happening that projected images on the band members as they played. Although the Velvets’ social set included plenty of artists and filmmakers, apparently no one got the obvious idea of capturing a full-length performance by the Velvets in their prime. What a remarkable missed opportunity.

Haynes’ documentary creatively musters circumstantial evidence instead. There are memories from eyewitnesses. And Haynes fills the lack of concert footage with an overload of contemporaneous images, sometimes blinking wildly in a tiled screen that suggests Windows 10 running amok. 

Luckily, there was more foresight in 1969, when Hal Tulchin had five video cameras rolling at the Harlem Cultural Festival, which later became known as Black Woodstock. New York City presented a series of six weekly free concerts at Mount Morris Park (now Marcus Garvey Park) with a lineup that looks almost miraculous now, including Stevie Wonder, Mahalia Jackson, Nina Simone, BB King, Sly and the Family Stone, and Mongo Santamaria, just for starters.

Tulchin’s crew shot more than 40 hours of footage, capturing the eager faces and righteous fashions of the audience along with performers who were knocking themselves out for an almost entirely Black crowd. Yet nearly all of Tulchin’s material went unseen until Questlove finally assembled 'Summer of Soul' from it.

Questlove’s subtitle and his song choices — King singing about slavery, Ray Baretto proudly claiming a multiracial America, Simone declaiming 'Backlash Blues', the Rev Jesse Jackson preaching about Martin Luther King Jr’s murder in 1968, even the 5th Dimension finding anguish and redemption in 'Let the Sunshine In' — make clear that the performers weren’t offering escapism or complacency. 

Cameras were filming constantly during the recording sessions for 'Let It Be', when the Beatles set themselves a peculiar, quixotic challenge in January 1969: to make an album fast, on their own, on camera and with a live show to follow. It was one more way that the Beatles were a harbinger of things to come, as if they had envisioned our digital era, when bands habitually record video while they work and upload work-in-progress updates for their fans. 

Its results, in 1970, were the 'Let It Be' album, reworked by Phil Spector, and the dour, disjointed 80-minute documentary 'Let It Be' by director Michael Lindsay-Hogg — both of them a letdown after the album 'Abbey Road', which was released in 1969 but recorded after the 'Let It Be' sessions. The Beatles had announced their breakup with solo albums.

The three-part, eight-hour 'Get Back' may well have been closer to what the Beatles hoped to put on film in 1969. It’s a bit overlong though. 

In 'The World’s a Little Blurry', Eilish faces some of the same pressures as the Beatles did: songwriting, deadlines, playing live, the press. But she’s also dealing with them as a teenage girl, in an era when there are cameras everywhere — even under her massage table — and the internet multiplies every bit of visibility and every attack vector. 

In 'The World’s a Little Blurry', Eilish performs to huge crowds singing along with every word, sweeps the top awards at the 2019 Grammys and gets a hug from her childhood pop idol, Justin Bieber. But as in her songs — tuneful, whispery and often nightmarish — there’s as much trauma as there is triumph. 

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