Asif Kapadia on his new ’70s music doc: “It was such a drug-infused time”

'1971: The Year That Music Changed Everything' details one of the most politically-charged periods in world history. James McMahon gets the lowdown

Despite the proclamations of Gil Scott-Heron, the revolution will be televised – over eight episodes in fact – on Apple TV+. 1971: The Year That Music Changed Everything takes the essence of legendary music journalist Dave Hepworth’s essential tome, 1971 – Never A Dull Moment: Rock’s Golden Year and puts it on the screen. Led by series director Asif Kapadia (Senna, Amy, Diego Maradona), as well as co-directors Danielle Peck and James Rogan, the series captures an age where music mattered more than ever.

We sat down with Kapadia and Peck to dig deep into rock and pop’s past, in the hopes of unearthing some suitable wisdom to apply to the here and now.

Hey guys, the last year has been a turbulent time – can you see parallels between 2021 and 1971?

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Danielle Peck: “When we were making the series, it felt very, very resonant. Trump was still incumbent at the point that we started making it, and it was impossible not to see the parallels between the two eras.”

Asif Kapadia: “We think we’ve progressed; we think things are better now, but it’s just the same thing again, and again. Things like Black Lives Matter and the UK leaving the EU – the links were kind of unbelievable. And then the other thing was that a lot of the artists were dying, while we’re making it. Every day, something would happen on the news that made us think we’re onto something here with this series.”

Did anyone die that you’d hoped to interview?

Kapadia: “I would have loved to have interviewed Bill Withers. The other [executive producer], James [Gay-Rees] would say Bowie. Aretha died when we were making it. It just adds to the responsibility you feel as a filmmaker in depicting who these people were. What we try to do with our documentaries is go deeper than anyone has gone before – you’re aware that if you get things right, this is how many people will remember a lot of these artists. When artists are dying, you realise, well, there’s not going to be another interview, there’s not going to be a chance to get their reaction to the series. So you have to get it right. You have to do your homework and then you put it out there. And then this show will live on together with their albums.”

George Harrison
George Harrison and Ravi Shankar. CREDIT: Apple

A lot of the film’s subjects are quite old – how did their memories hold up?

Kapadia: “Well, there were people who really surprised us. Elton John. He was electric. Sir Tim Rice too. He’s got amazing recall. But you do think that if we’d got the chance to speak to Marc Bolan, maybe he wouldn’t have remembered so much. You have to remember that it was such a drug-infused time. There’s one interview – and I won’t go into details about who it was – but I was literally having to remind them of what actually happened. People’s memories are so interesting. Sometimes people want to make things sound more positive than they were, or they just don’t remember.”

The archive footage you’ve used is incredible – which was your favourite bit?

Peck: “I’ve seen so many films about David Bowie and I thought there was nothing really left to see, particularly in 1971. He was virtually invisible that year. But I found these negative sheets, three negative sheets of stills. I think I’d seen one, in an anthology book about his life. But there were three sheets here. And they were amazing. I couldn’t believe that I’d found them.”

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Asif Kapadia
The Staple Singers. CREDIT: Apple

Was there anything else like that?

Peck:Sly Stone. Again, it was a difficult year to tell his story because he was notorious for not appearing a lot of the time. He was so often holed up doing drugs. There were TV shows that he played on, but not much else. Then I found a little article in one of the trade magazines about a promo film that he’d made for his label, for their catalogue of artists. And so, we went to the record company that now own his label and we told them about this footage. They didn’t know about it. It was just amazing footage of him working in the studio with his funky wallpaper. There was no audio, but amazing wallpaper.”

Do you think music is as important now as it was to people then?

Kapadia: “You can’t help being the age you are. You become your parents, right? And so you do think it’s not quite the same now. I can’t help it. I’m not listening to the radio as much as I used to when I was younger. I’m not aware of everything. But there is something about the mechanics of the music industry now – the speed of it all, the sheer number of channels and the fact that we are streaming much more than we are buying physical copies of albums, that does present a different landscape. Does anyone listen to an album from beginning to end? Is there a narrative built into them? My feeling is that when I look at what’s going on in the world right now, I’m not hearing enough from the biggest artists of the era in terms of being willing to stand up and speak out about what is happening. People are worried about losing sponsors. I may be wrong, but that’s my feeling.”

Peck: “There are people doing that – I remember seeing Dave at the Brit Awards and my jaw hitting the floor. Or Janelle Monae or Childish Gambino. But where does it go? It’s not just the artists, it’s the industry. It’s the whole way that music is consumed. In the past, you had these albums, and you would cherish them and read the sleeve notes, and… now you flick your finger and move on.”

Kapadia: “But it’s a context thing. You can’t tell whether something is important in the here and now. Maybe in 20 or 30 years’ time, someone will make a TV series about this era of music and they’ll find it.”

‘1971: The Year That Music Changed Everything’ is streaming now on Apple TV+

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