The History of RockNRoll opens with Bruce Springsteen, who tells us, "It was the single thing that was able to reach down, communicate and give you a sense of the world outside." This 1995 television documentary series showed how deeply its subject touched people and helped define them and the times they lived in. Time-Life, the same company that markets the '60s Gold and The Ultimate '70s Collection music sets, produced The History of RockNRoll. As with those music collections, the ten-part series (which first appeared on cable and later on VH1) appealed to the general audience, but it also had a lot to recommend it to fans who knew rocks history.
Warner Home Video has now released the series on five DVDs with a Dolby 5.1 surround mix. The DVDs are in a book-sized slipcase thats more convenient to handle and store than the VHS version, which ran to ten tapes. The DVD release contains an additional 80 minutes of footage. PBS broadcast a similar history a few months after this series originally ran, and it emphasized the social impact of rocknroll. The History of RockNRoll touches on how rock changed society, especially in America, but its primary focus is on the sense of joy and release the music conveyed to its fans. As Jerry Lee Lewis tells us near the beginning of the first chapter, "RockNRoll Explodes," " Rocknroll is rocknroll. And youre not gonna beat rocknroll music. If you do, I want to hear it."
The History of RockNRoll mixes performance footage with reminiscence and opinion from musicians, a couple of industry executives, and other key figures, such as Dick Clark. The performance footage can be frustratingly short, but many of the juxtapositions are instructive. Footage from the '50s of Pat Boone singing "Tutti Fruiti" shows him struggling to find the beat as he snaps his fingers, but a performance by Little Richard from the same period shows that rocknroll is more than knowing where the beat is. Boone holds everything back, while Richard gives himself over completely to his performance.
Sometimes the series seems to make its points clumsily, but things link together. A discussion of how the blues grew out of work songs in the cotton fields leads to some observations from Solomon Burke about country music: "When you listen to country music, you listen to the actual hurt, the real pain." Of course, Burke could as easily be describing the blues. In the next sequence, Hank Ballard, holding a picture of Gene Autry, says, "I wanted to be the first singin cowboy, you know. This man influenced me." Burke and Ballard remind us that rocknroll, like so much thats good in American life, is the result of a blending of cultures.
Its in the meeting of cultures that rock became an agent of social change. The second chapter, "Good Rockin Tonight," opens with black-and-white footage of Chuck Berry playing to a television studio full of white kids and then segues into old TV news film of racist comments about rock'n'roll by the chairman and the executive secretary of the Alabama White Citizens Council. In a way, their fears about the mixing of races came true. Little Richard notes proudly and emphatically, "My music broke down racial barriers." Carl Perkins agreed: "Kids danced to Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Elvis, Carl. Chuck Berry said to me one time, he said, You know, Carl, we might be doing as much with our music as our leaders are in Washington. "
Even a ten-hour documentary is going to miss or give inadequate attention to some important events and artists. Sixties garage rock is not mentioned in the chapter on the psychedelic era, "My Generation," nor is the rise of progressive-rock bands in England, such as Pink Floyd or King Crimson (a subject excellently covered in the PBS series, if memory serves). The significance of FM rock radio is shoehorned into the chapter on Dylan, "Plugging In." The chapter on the British Invasion and Americas reaction feels rushed, but it was a rushed time. "The Sounds of Soul," doesnt mention the impact of soul music on the civil rights movement until near the end of its hour. The most glaring omission is of Sly Stone, who gets a brief mention in the chapter on the '70s. Certainly no other musicians influence, aside from James Browns, is still so strongly present in records we hear today.
The 5.1 surround mix is clean and detailed and spread across a wide soundstage. Theres not much going on in the rear channels until the later discs, and its mainly noticeable in the MTV videos contained in the final chapter. If you dont have surround the sound defaults to stereo thats a tiny bit edgy in spots, but not enough to be distracting. The extra footage is integrated into the series, and the main menu offers scene selection, but no options for setting the sound. Youll want to avoid the music on the main menus and the chapter intros. It sounds like a lounge band trying to pull off Chuck Berrys "RockNRoll Music."
Any faults in The History of RockNRock are outweighed by its many great moments -- moments that rock fans will find exciting and, at times, moving. Jump-blues great Louis Jordan shows up in chapter one in a performance from the late '40s and helps lay the groundwork for rocknroll. Jerry Butler remembers hearing Ray Charles for the first time and recounts how scandalized his mother was that Charles adapted an old hymn for "I Got A Woman." Jerry Lee Lewiss performance in the '50s is every bit as rude and anarchic as Johnny Rottens would be more than 20 years later. Bob Dylan plays "Maggies Farm" at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, with Mike Bloomfield shadowing him, and a lot of folkies get mad (promoter George Wein describes Pete Seeger siting in his car, holding his hands over his ears and begging Wein to make it stop).
But what makes this series special is the voices of the musicians who play rocknroll -- their stories of how the music reached down into them and changed them, and how it made them want to play it. Many of them speak eloquently, but Joe Strummer says my favorite thing anyone has ever said about rocknroll at the end chapter 9, "Punk." Its sad to think well never hear another Joe Strummer record, but its reassuring to hear his voice reminding us why rocknroll means so much to us:
"I think rocknroll exists to deliver this truth that needs to be constantly delivered -- rock, hip-hop, whatever you call it. It reminds us, like this unspoken message, that it is fun to be alive. Its a hell of a lot better than being dead."
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