This was originally posted Wednesday, April 19, 2017 by Rodney Ho on his AJC Radio & TV Talk blog
While major historical events are not necessarily defined by music, music helped define many of those key events.
That's the basic premise behind CNN's latest original series "Soundtracks: Songs That Defined History." Among the topics tackled over eight episodes starting at 10 p.m. Thursday, April 19: civil rights, the gay rights movement, Vietnam, 9/11, Hurricane Katrina and the space program.
Executive producers Maro Chermayeff and Jeff Dupre also happened to share agents with a man named Dwayne Johnson. Though he is better known nowadays as an A-list actor ("Moana," "The Fast and the Furious" series, the upcoming "Baywatch" remake), he has a keen interest in both music and history. So he jumped aboard, giving the series a major celebrity boost.
While Chermayeff said having Johnson aboard wasn't necessarily a make-or-break reason why CNN took the series, his presence was a nice bonus. And that's also why Johnson appears somewhat incongruously at times as a talking head in many of the episodes. (Yes, that is Johnson talking about country music during the 9/11 episode.)
"He is the most efficient and busiest person I know," Dupre said.
"He's up at 4:30 a.m. chasing toddlers around," Chermayeff said. "He's the sexiest man alive. He can't be stopped. On top of that, he's almost the nicest guy in the world."
This was not a series done on the cheap, given the costs to clear all that iconic music, digging up archival material and convincing famous singers (Melissa Etheridge, Billy Joel, Paul Simon, David Crosby, George Clinton) to talk about how their songs fit into world events. (One of the few songs they couldn't get cleared: Beyonce's "Formation" for the Katrina episode) They had 25 people working full time for an entire year to put together the eight episodes.
One episode they especially enjoyed putting together was the one focused on the space race, allowing them to play songs such as Elton John's "Rocket Man" and David Bowie's "Space Oddity." When they talked to Peter Schilling for the Berlin Wall episode, they were also able to get him on this episode thanks to his song "Major Tom." "It's a fun way for a lot of these songs to come back to life," Chermayeff said, "to reinfuse them with new meaning and put them in context. They really shine."
They were also able to access Russian space archives. "Any footage of people floating around in outer space is incredibly atmospheric and eerie and cool," Dupre said. "Then you sync it up to Bowie."
They also note how many songs tied to an event were written long before said event. Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the USA" became an anthem after 9/11 17 years after it was first released. Paul Simon played a poignant version of "Sound of Silence" at the World Trade Center site 10 years after 9/11 in front of families of the victims. He said when he wrote that when he was 21, he of course had no idea the meaning the song may have in a different context.
Others, of course, were directly related to that event, such as Toby Keith's "Courtesy of the Red, White & Blue" (9/11) and Crosby, Stills & Nash's "Ohio" (Kent State). Some were misconstrued, such as Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the USA," an anti-Vietnam song that was taken by many to be a blindly patriotic one.
CNN and Johnson have been pulling out all the stops promoting the series. They held a screening of the first episode featuring Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination at the National Center of Human & Civil Rights in Atlanta Tuesday night, an episode that prominently featured commentary from civil rights legend Andrew Young. They have upcoming screenings set to be held at the site of World Trade Center, Kent State, the area around Stonewall in New York City and the National Air and Space Museum in D.C.
They even had one of the series' contributors Melissa Etheridge hold a surprise "concert" in the 59th Street New York City subway station, with the Rock in the wings:
The producers interviewed Etheridge specifically for the gay rights episode but when she saw they were doing something on the Berlin Wall, she noted she was actually performing in Berlin when the wall came down in 1989 and provided some of her own home footage for the episode.
Many episodes tie past events with current ones. The civil rights episode begins with songs by Nina Simone and end with Kendrick Lamar. "Since we started the series, a lot of themes and issues and questions we're having as Americans are circling," Chermayeff said. "That has made the season more relevant and potent."
If the show does well and a season 2 comes along, they have 50 other ideas. On the whiteboard includes the Kennedy assassination, the Irish/England conflict and gun control.
"We hope the series will provide some true context in terms of how far we've come but also how we can't take things for granted," Dupre said.
"Soundtracks: Songs That Defined History," 10 p.m. Thursdays, starting April 20, 2017, CNN