Posted May 25, 2021 by Jeff in Flicks

‘1971: The Year That Music Changed Everything’ Explores Music’s Connection to Politics

The Staple Singers are featured in “1971: The Year That Music Changed Everything,” now streaming on Apple TV+.
The Staple Singers are featured in “1971: The Year That Music Changed Everything,” now streaming on Apple TV+.

Executive produced by Academy, BAFTA and Grammy Award winners Asif Kapadia (AmySenna) and James Gay-Rees (AmySenna,Exit Through the Gift Shop), 1971: The Year That Music Changed Everything, an eight-part docuseries, features archival footage and interviews from a truly significant moment in rock ‘n’ roll history. 

The docuseries includes music from acts such as the Rolling Stones, Aretha Franklin, Bob Marley, Marvin Gaye, The Who, Joni Mitchell and Lou Reed.

Kapadia will serve as series director and will executive produce alongside James Gay-Rees, David Joseph and UMG’s Adam Barker. Chris King serves as editor and executive producer. Danielle Peck is series producer and directs alongside James Rogan.

In this recent conference call, Gay-Rees and Rogan spoke about the series. 

David Hepworth’s book forms the basis for your film. Talk about what made you want to provide a visual companion to the book.

Gay-Rees: We met David and heard about his book. It immediately resonated with us. We are big fans of the music. That time period with the music and fashion and film is an interesting tipping point. We used his book as a basis and inspiration for our process. As we got more and more into it, we realized we didn’t want to make a chronological list show so much. We started researching the year in general and found it to be a very transitional and fascinating year. The ’60s crashed and burned with Kent State and Altamont and Manson and the Beatles breaking up in December of 1970. The failed optimism of the ‘60s was replaced with what some people call the golden age of paranoia. We dived into the waters of that society to find out what was going on. The output of music is extraordinary and compares favorably to most other years certainly in that era. We set about doing this exercise of what was going on in society to create this extraordinary output of music and what was the relationship between the artists and society and what they were responding to. People responded to the end of the ‘60s in different ways. Some people went to lovely villas in the south of France to immerse themselves in drugs and some locked themselves in attics in Beverly Hills and disappeared down the rabbit hole as well and some wrote protest songs. We built it out of that, and it became a thematic activity as opposed to a chronological activity.

In the press notes, you talk about transporting viewers to the moment. Talk about that approach to the series and how you went about achieving that.

Rogan: We didn’t see it as the past. Asif [Kapadia] and James [Gay-Rees] and Chris King, who has edited one of the films and was also an executive producer, set the bar with Amy and Senna, massive portraits of the lives of people we knew. This was taking that and moving it into a different space. We wanted it to be completely immersive and visceral. When I was in the editing seat or conducting the interviews, I never thought I was talking about the past. It felt like we were talking about things going on still today. There is a nostalgia value in terms of people being so familiar with the music, but in my view, the music is as vital today as it was in 1971.

The series opens with the Kent State shootings. What made you think that would be a good starting point?

Rogan: The series producer and director Danielle Peck did a lot of the initial research. There was a sense that 1971 was defined by an event that happened before. Marvin Gaye writes “What’s Going On” in the aftermath of the Kent Stage shootings. It gets released in January of 1971. It was a real trigger event in terms of just how far the enmity between the anti-war movement and the government had gotten. That played out in 1971 with Nixon’s reaction, the May Day rallies, the burglary of the FBI. Everyone was profoundly affected by it, so it seemed like a good place to start not least because it produced immediately one of the all-time protest songs and Chrissie Hynde, the musician, was also there. It seemed like a rich opening salvo in a year that would go on to be definitive. 

John Lennon and Marvin Gaye, who both appear in Episode 1, really took their work in a different direction in 1971. Talk about their significance. 

Rogan: John Lennon and Marvin Gaye are both towering figures in pop music of that time. What’s Going On is the seminal protest album of all time, arguably. John Lennon’s Imagine is also a protest album in a very different vein. We can hear John Lennon responding to “What’s Going On” in his song and in what he says in the film. He’s also responding musically to the end of the Beatles. The way they intersect is one of the amazing intersectionalities in the film. It’s not like they went in a room and wrote a song together. It’s that everyone was listening to this music when it came out. Everyone was buying the albums, including the artists themselves.

Everyone was involved in figuring out if they could express as beautifully or more beautifully what they just heard expressed by a fellow musician. 

James Rogan

The year seems so singular. It’s hard to imagine the music of any other year connecting so well to current events. 

Gay-Rees: It’s a remarkable year given how artists were engaging in society like that and making music. Those issues [they were addressing] are unfortunately still with us today. I think that’s why the music still resonates today. In the UK, “What’s Going On” is played more now than ever. The music is so powerful still. That was something that became apparent while making the show. The warning lights were flashing 50 years ago and we failed to engage with those challenges formidably enough and hence we’re in the situation we’re in now. It’s a gift in a way to find music confronting those issues then. We almost need another round of music now to update that message in addition to reviving this music and seeing it in a new light to apply it to the situation we find ourselves in today.

The Staple Singers are featured in 1971: The Year That Music Changed Everything, now streaming on Apple TV+.


Jeff started writing about rock ’n’ roll some 20 years ago when he stood in the pouring rain to hitch hike his way to see R.E.M. on their Life’s Rich Pageant tour. Since that time, he's written for various daily newspapers, alt-weeklies, magazines and websites. Feel free to comment on his posts or suggest music, film and art to him at [email protected].