In Slate’s annual Music Club, Slate critic Carl Wilson emails about the year in music with fellow critics — featuring New York Times contributor Lindsay Zoladz, freelance writer Briana Younger, NPR music critic Ann Powers, Glitter Up the Dark author Sasha Geffen, Pitchfork contributing editor Jenn Pelly, WXNP Nashville editorial director Jewly Hight, Penguin Books author Julianne Escobedo Shepherd, critic Steacy Easton, Slate pop-culture critic Jack Hamilton, and Chris Molanphy, the host of Slate’s Hit Parade.
Such a pleasure to be back here with all of you, as always. I’ve really enjoyed reading everyone’s entries, and I want to particularly thank Brianna for her lovely words on the incomparable titans bell hooks and Greg Tate, whose departures still have me reeling.
I was looking back over my 2021 output and, hardly by design, this is the first year I can recall where I wrote more reviews of movies about music than reviews of actual music. Specifically, I reviewed a bunch of music documentaries, and I watched far more than I wrote about. I saw some that were exquisite (Tina, Summer of Soul, The Velvet Underground, and Get Back stand out, as Carl’s and Sasha’s entries have already touched on), many more that were flawed but highly watchable, and some that were flawed and barely watchable.
I’m not sure we’re living in a golden age of music docs, but we’re certainly living in a gilded age of them, particularly thanks to the content firehoses of services like Netflix, Hulu, and HBO Max. In many ways, this makes sense: documentaries are cheaper to produce than scripted fare in general, and I’d assume they’re also easier to make under the conditions of the pandemic. I also suspect that music docs are fairly reliable performers, particularly when it’s a beloved subject. I reviewed the Netflix documentary Biggie: I Got a Story to Tell earlier this year, a fine if mostly un-revelatory film targeted at the significant population of Notorious B.I.G. fans (like me) who will watch anything about him.
But I wonder if some of it also has to do with developments in what we might call the business of music history. Recent years have seen a growing trend of aging artists selling off large chunks of their life’s work for fairly astronomical sums. Sometimes, these sales have been to legacy media giants, like Bob Dylan selling his catalog to Universal Music Group for $400 million, or Bruce Springsteen selling his publishing and masters to Sony for a reported $550 million just last week. And sometimes, they’ve been to newer companies like Hipgnosis and Primary Wave, which aren’t in the music-making business but rather in the business of driving up the value of catalogs. Earlier this year, Hipgnosis acquired half of the worldwide copyright interests in Neil Young’s catalog; Primary Wave owns a substantial chunk of Bob Marley’s and Stevie Nicks’s, among others.
I have no problem with these artists (and their families) cashing out, but it seems notable that significant swaths of musical history are now unilaterally in the control of massive corporations, and especially ones like Hipgnosis and Primary Wave, whose raison d’être is to generate as much profit as possible from music made decades ago. Back in January of this year, Tyler Mahan Coe—whose Cocaine and Rhinestones podcast was the best work of music history, in any medium, that I consumed this year—posted a dire Twitter thread about the dystopian implications of this, foretelling a world in which music’s future is sacrificed at the altar of the bottomless lucre that can be wrung from its past.
I am not ready to go quite that far, nor do I think we’ll be hearing Neil Young’s music in fast food ads anytime soon, as Hipgnosis’ founder awkwardly joked about after that acquisition. But I do think that Coe is right that we’re likely to see an increase in commercial nostalgism aimed at juicing up catalog values, and one proven way to do that is through cross-media synergy like biopics, television series, and, yes, documentaries.
As a music historian, I tend to watch music documentaries mostly for their implications as works of public history. Part of what made Questlove’s Summer of Soul so thrilling was the way it allowed viewers to learn about and vicariously experience a half-century-old extraordinary musical happening that many of them had likely never known about. Peter Jackson’s Get Back is a herculean work of archival curation and aesthetic reinvigoration, a film that resets the historical record on the most important rock and roll band ever. But these are exceptional films, standouts in every way. Most of the other music docs I watched this year felt like nostalgia projects meant to be enjoyed in easily digestible and frictionless ways, with the byproduct of juking downloads and streaming numbers. All of which is fine for the purposes of entertainment, but I’m not sure it’s great for history.
A perfect median specimen of the sort of movie I’m describing is one that didn’t even technically come out this year. The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart premiered on HBO in December 2020 and is currently streaming on HBO Max. It’s a totally watchable movie, full of great music and nice talking-head interviews. The elevator pitch seems to be, “remember how great the Bee Gees are?”—which is fine! The Bee Gees are really great.
But I found myself perplexed by the way the film, near its end, chose to address the Bee Gees’ steep commercial downturn in the aftermath of Saturday Night Fever (1977). How Can You Mend a Broken Heart entirely attributes this to a broader climate of anti-disco backlash that was rooted in homophobia, misogyny, and racism. The “disco sucks” movement was of course very real and very ugly, and much of it was rooted in bigotry barely disguised as objections of taste, if even disguised at all. And yet I’m not sure that it wholly explains why the Bee Gees’ career took a nosedive. After all, the Bee Gees were massively overexposed after Saturday Night Fever, which generally tends to be unsustainable, and they’d had their greatest success with a movie soundtrack, the sort of LP that might disproportionately sell to audiences that might not be in it for the long haul. It sat strangely with me that a movie otherwise light on musical and social context would cast a group of straight white guys as the main victims of the most racist, anti-gay, and misogynistic strains of discophobia.
There’s another reason that public sentiment might have turned against the Bee Gees in this period, one that How Can You Mend a Broken Heart entirely leaves out: namely, the group’s starring role in the 1978 movie Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, one of the most widely loathed cultural debacles of its era that came out when the group was at the peak of their commercial powers. The film was a production of the Bee Gees’ manager, Robert Stigwood, who’d also produced Saturday Night Fever, a misbegotten and hubristic heat-check from a guy who’d just made not one but two of the most profitable music movies in history. (The Stigwood-produced Grease came out a month before Sgt. Pepper premiered.)
It seems at least possible that a decent portion of anti-Bee Gees sentiment might have come from their high-profile involvement in a movie that was roundly excoriated as a cynical cannibalization of some of the beloved music in history. One piece of evidence to support this is that Sgt. Pepper similarly helped to torpedo the career of Peter Frampton, who wasn’t really associated with disco at all. Another is that George Harrison himself said as much in a 1979 interview. But How Can You Mend a Broken Heart makes no mention of the Sgt. Pepper disaster at all, presumably because doing so would complicate a notion of the Bee Gees as sainted martyrs at the stake of anti-disco zealotry.
With all this in mind, the other night I once again logged on to HBO Max to watch a new documentary called Mr. Saturday Night, the subject of which is none other than Robert Stigwood himself. A documentary about the Bee Gees and one about the Bee Gees’ manager, released less than a year apart; what are the odds? (Incidentally, Capitol Records, a subsidiary of Universal, announced in 2016 that it had acquired worldwide rights to the Bee Gees’ recorded catalogue, with plans to “reinvigorate” the group’s music. “The Bee Gees catalogue is one of the most esteemed and important bodies of work in the history of recorded music, and we are brimming with ideas that will remind fans of its brilliance and further the band‘s legacy by introducing their music to new audiences,” said Capitol CEO Steve Barnett.)
Mr. Saturday Night is a slighter documentary than How Can You Mend a Broken Heart in nearly every way. It’s overwhelmingly adulatory and mostly about how Robert Stigwood was very successful, which is the one thing anyone watching it already knows about him. Incredibly, Mr. Saturday Night also almost completely removes Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band from Robert Stigwood’s career story. (The movie is briefly included in a brisk montage late in the documentary of Stigwood’s post-Grease flops, but entirely decontextualized.)
This sucks! For starters, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is a fascinating subject, as world-historical show-biz misfires often are. I would happily watch an entire feature-length documentary on the making of that movie. (Good luck getting the rights to that music.) Erasing the film from the stories of those who made it because it mucks up your hagiography is worse than irresponsible history. It diminishes its subjects by denying them complexity, while also insulting your audience by assuming they can’t (or shouldn’t) grapple with the fact that sometimes talented people fuck up and make bad art.
But it also strikes me that the story of the Sgt. Pepper’s movie has something to offer our current moment. It’s a movie whose origins were probably rooted in real love and homage but morphed into a greedy attempt to wring money out of nostalgia for the Beatles, who weren’t involved with the film. (They were known to have less than amicable feelings towards Stigwood.) Sgt. Pepper’s was a bad idea shoddily realized through the vampiric virtues of capitalism, a slapdash attempt to cash in on the bygone work of more talented people. “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it;” here’s hoping those who make sure others can’t remember it should at least be relegated to the algorithm’s dustbin.
10 for the road:
Boldy James and the Alchemist — Bo Jackson
Jazmine Sullivan — Heaux Tales
Ka — A Martyr’s Reward
Leo Nocentelli — Another Side
Mach-Hommy — Pray for Haiti
Rod Wave — Soulfly
Sault — Nine
Summer Walker — Still Over It
Tinashe — 333
Turnstile — Glow On