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Monday, August 30, 2010

Documentary memories

Over the course of this year, I've been watching a lot of television documentaries about popular music. TV docos are one medium that circulates stories about popular music to a wide audience. If you've ever watched any of them yourself, you'll know that they have a particular way of talking about the subject.

One of the most recognisable characteristics of these series is their aesthetic, which I think has become somewhat standardised over the last twenty years or so. In recent examples of the genre, like
Seven Ages of Rock (2007), which aired again on the ABC during 2010, one of the first things to notice is the fast-paced editing, which link very brief grabs of footage together to form an aurally and visually stimulating montage of sounds and images from the past. The action is often accompanied by the voice of an unseen narrator who explains what we are seeing and hearing in authoritative tones. Interviews with people who were involved in the production of the music in some way and who act as 'witnesses' to the past (artists, producers, promoters, etc) are also a big part of these series, giving a sense of veracity to the stories that are being told on screen. It would be rare for performance footage or interview material to last for more than about thirty or forty seconds at a time, such is the speed of the editing that links this material together. This style, with its short and sharp soundbites, and jump cuts between different kinds of archival footage and talking-head style interviews, has become very familiar in television's representations of popular music's past. But it hasn't always been this way.

Tony Palmer's documentary,
All You Need is Love, which was completed in 1975, is very different. Its pace is much slower, and sometimes performance and interview footage lasts for many minutes at a time, and the narration is intermittent, meaning that sometimes archival footage is completely uninterrupted by editing or opinions offered in narration. The series itself is also very long. The 1995 documentary Dancing in the Street seemed long when we watched it, clocking in at ten episodes of about 50 minutes each. But All You Need is Love is a mammoth seventeen episodes in length, making it almost 15 hours in length -- considering that there's twenty less years to cover in Palmer's series, you can imagine how different this makes the experience of watching the series.

What does the form of these documentaries do for the way that we might engage with the material that we see on screen? What kind of impression of the past do these programmes produce? How might viewers be asked to assimilate what they see on the TV screen into their own bank of memories of the past? And how do these documentaries produce a shared sense of the past, especially for viewers who have only ever experienced the music under discussion via the medium of the music documentary itself? These are some of the things that I've been thinking about in relation to the music documentary genre, and I'm working on an article that addresses some of these issues via a reading of All You Need is Love.

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