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For pop music, 2022 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 (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)”;
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
documentaries were about reclaiming and rethinking memory, about unexpected
echoes across decades, about transparency and the mysteries of artistic
production.

They were also a reminder of how scarce hi-fi sound and
images were back in the analog era, and how ubiquitous they are now. A
half-century ago, the costs of film and tape were not negligible, while
posterity was a minor consideration. Experiencing the moment seemed far more
important than preserving any record of it. It would be decades before “pics or
it didn’t happen.”

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 only eyewitnesses,
a relief). 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. News, commercials and bits of avant-garde
films flicker alongside Warhol’s silent contemplations of band members staring
back at the camera. The faces and fragments are there, in a workaround that
translates the far-off blur of the 1960s into a 21st-century digital grid.

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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 (and a sponsor, Maxwell House)
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.

The music in “Summer of Soul” moves from peak to peak, with
unstoppable rhythms, rawly compelling voices, snappy dance steps and urgent
messages. But “Summer of Soul” doesn’t just revel in the performances.
Commentary from festivalgoers, performers and observers (including definitive
critic Greg Tate) supply context for a festival that had the Black Panthers as
security, and that the city probably supported, in part, to channel energy away
from potential street protests after the turbulence of 1968.

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. After five decades in the archives, “Summer
of Soul” is still timely in 2022; it’s anything but quaint. Here’s hoping that
far more of the festival footage emerges; bring on the expanded version or the
miniseries. A soundtrack album is due in January.

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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 (although they
eventually got the invaluable help of Billy Preston on keyboards), 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. In the 1960s, recording studios were generally regarded
as private work spaces, from which listeners would eventually receive only the
(vinyl) finished project. The “Let It Be” sessions represented a new
transparency.

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; I
will never need to see another close-up of toast at breakfast. But in all those
hours of filming, Lindsay-Hogg’s cameras took in the iterative, intuitive
process of the band constructing Beatles songs: building and whittling down
arrangements, playing Mad Libs with syllables of lyrics, recharging itself with
oldies and in jokes, having instruments in hand when inspiration struck.
Jackson’s definitive sequence — the song “Get Back” emerging as Paul McCartney,
George Harrison and Ringo Starr are jamming one morning — merges laddish
camaraderie with deep artistic instinct.

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“Get Back” newly reveals the situations that the Beatles
were juggling even as they pushed themselves toward their self-imposed (and
then self-extended) deadline. They moved from the acoustically inhospitable
Twickenham film studios to a hastily assembled basement studio at Apple. They
seriously mulled over some preposterous locations — an amphitheatre in Tripoli?
a children’s hospital? — for the impending live show. There was so much tension
that Harrison walked out of the band, only to reconcile and rejoin after a few
days. Meanwhile, they faced predatory coverage from British tabloids. It’s a
wonder they could concentrate on making music at all.

As established stars, the Beatles could work largely within
their own protective bubble in 1969. Fast-forward 50 years for “The World’s a
Little Blurry,” and 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. “I literally can’t have a bad moment,” she realises.

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. Eilish also copes with tearing a ligament onstage, her recurring
Tourette syndrome, a video-screen breakdown when she headlines the Coachella
festival, an apathetic boyfriend, inane interviewers, endless meet-and-greets
and constant self-questioning about accessibility versus integrity. It’s almost
too much information. Still, a few years or a few decades from now, who knows
what an expanded version might add?

© 2022 The New York Times Company

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