Apple TV+ documentary series 1971 is boomer bait with a purpose

The miniseries features remarkable rare footage of David Bowie, the Rolling Stones, Sly Stone, and many more

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      1971: The Year That Music Changed Everything

      A documentary series by Danielle Peck, James Rogan, and Asif Kapadia. All eight episodes available to stream Friday (May 21) on Apple TV+.

      With a wealth of footage, some of it never publicly screened, and a music licensing budget comparable to the GDP of a G7 nation, Apple TV+’s documentary miniseries 1971: The Year That Music Changed Everything sets out to argue that one crucial year served as the flashpoint for a foundational shift in Western culture.

      In 1971, the argument goes, popular music reflected and amplified the issues of justice, equality, and empowerment for which we’re still fighting half a century later. The same David Bowie quote plays over the opening titles of every episode: “We were creating the 21st century in 1971.” It’s a bit of a stretch, to be honest, but there’s something in every episode that makes you stare in awe at what music can do.

      Using supervising director Asif Kapadia’s signature aesthetic of contextualizing archival footage with post-facto audio interviews—as seen in Senna, Diego Maradona, and the Oscar-winning Amy—each episode tries to tackle one aspect of the cultural shift, with episodes on creativity derailed by drugs, artists whose work questioned the concepts of gender, Nixon’s attempts to crush the Black Panthers, and so on. Revolutionary artists like Gil Scott-Heron and Marc Bolan get as much screen time as Sly Stone or George Harrison, their words burning across the screen.

      You can, however, feel the filmmakers straining to compress a movement into 45 minutes. Key figures like John Lennon, Aretha Franklin, and the Rolling Stones drift in and out of episodes as the chosen theme brings them in for a moment of relevance and then shoves them out again to focus on someone else. And some of the editorial choices are just plain questionable: for example, does Elton John really belong in an episode about the authenticity wave driven by singer-songwriters like Carole King and Joni Mitchell, for example? (No disrespect intended to John, but he was neither singing nor publicly living his truth at the time.)

      And time, as it turns out, is fungible: the episode focusing on emerging queer identity draws heavily from the landmark PBS documentary series An American Family, which was shot in 1971 but didn’t air until 1973, and the civil-rights episode climaxes with clips from Franklin recording her gospel album Amazing Grace in 1972, and so on. It’s always relevant to the narrative, but liberties are definitely being taken.

      Anyone who’s familiar with the era will have seen some of this material before, though Kapadia and his editorial team go out of their way to find alternate coverage of historical events like the Stones’ disastrous concert at the Altamont Speedway and the Attica prison riot. There’s also some footage of the various Stones nodding off in a recording studio—thanks, heroin!—that I’m shocked the band was willing to release.

      Every time I found myself wondering if 1971 was just the latest example of a megacorporation trying to sell boomers their own history in a shiny new package, it delivers a moment like David Bowie’s unpolished, exquisite performance of Changes—at Glastonbury, to a crowd that’s barely awake—and it’s as if the show opens a window to a moment in time when it actually felt like a generation could save the world from itself.