Rock-and-Roll: TV Series Hits Historical High Notes
BOSTON — The exhilarating chords first struck Brian Wilson's ears as he was driving in California one day with his girlfriend during the 1960s. The radio was on and a deejay had just spun ''Be My Baby,'' sung by the Ronettes. ''What!'' the Beach Boys' singer-songwriter recalls exclaiming. The song's venturesome harmony - so different and so compelling - was a revelation to him and had a lasting impact on his work. ''I pulled the car over to the curb. Wait a minute! No way!'' That distant moment of musical discovery, so powerfully recalled by Mr. Wilson in an interview, is typical of ''Rock & Roll.'' The TV miniseries premieres on PBS Sunday and airs on five consecutive nights in two-hour blocks from 9 to 11 p.m. The programs put the spotlight where it belongs: on the music itself, not on the celebrity factor, the sociology, political controversy, or any of the other byways of rock music during its turbulent passage through three generations. The series' main success lies in the way it gets inside the heads of the people behind the fast-changing face of the music. Whenever practical, it's the original producers, studio engineers, session musicians, songwriters, and deejays who do the talking, often as if it happened yesterday. They recount rock history in terms of chords, instrumentation, and even the physical setup inside recording studios. Time and again viewers see a clip of some performance and then hear how it got there. We hear ''Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow'' by the Shirelles, for instance, and then hear Carole King tell how she and her husband, Gerry Goffin, created and managed to sell the song. Rock-and-roll is close enough in time to allow this kind of personal recollection, but far enough away for the series to offer a clear-headed perspective. The heavily researched analysis begins with rock's roots in rhythm and blues and gospel music in the early 1950s. The programs explore the music as a whole but focus on its renegades - not just obvious ones like Elvis Presley and the Beatles, but artists from Chuck Berry through epoch-making record producers like Phil Spector, to Bob Dylan, to punk rock in the 1970s, and beyond. Originally a renegade form - disrupting traditional pop music patterns - rock-and-roll itself was constantly subject to wild upsets, such as the British invasion. The production makes this clear as it takes viewers through psychedelic music and its offspring - the Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, and the Grateful Dead. It moves through the Velvet Underground, the Doors, and David Bowie; Alice Cooper, Bob Marley and his reggae movement, Bruce Springsteen, and U2, to Michael jackson and other current stars. Happily, a viewer need not have experienced all of this music personally to enjoy the series. ''Probably everybody in this country 55 or younger knows a particular patch of this music,'' says executive producer Elizabeth Deane, the award-winning producer who originally proposed the idea for the series to her bosses at Boston's WGBH. ''By the first few notes of a song you know what the song is going to be,'' she says. ''This series connects the dots. It links the music you know and love to the music of other generations, how the influences flowed, what was rejected.'' The programs are a coproduction of WGBH and the BBC, but this time it is a true coproduction - not a British show merely tailored for American viewers. ''We produced five [shows] and they produced five,'' Ms. Deane says. The show can't swallow the whole rock repertoire - even in snatches - so inevitably, certain favorites may be conspicuously absent. ''If you try to include everything, it weakens your story and history,'' Ms Deane maintains. ''It becomes a superficial summary, and that's not what we wanted to do. We looked at the early Elvis, for instance, and then left that story.'' Better known for political and international documentaries like the 1983 ''Vietnam: A Television History,'' Deane says she loved doing this show. ''There is a lot of joy in the music and characters,'' she says. ''I viewed the subject as important - as deeply American music. We wanted to make an intelligent series, but it is rock-and-roll. We didn't want to kill it.'' They didn't.