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‘Soundbreaking’ review: PBS goes deep into music-making

Beatles producer George Martin is featured in the

Beatles producer George Martin is featured in the PBS documentary series "Soundbreaking." Photo Credit: Abbey Road Studios

THE SERIES “Soundbreaking”

WHEN | WHERE Monday, Nov. 14, and Friday, Nov. 18, 9-11 p.m.; Wednesday, Nov. 21, 22, and 23 at 10 p.m.; WNET/13 and WLIW/21

GRADE B+

WHAT IT’S ABOUT The eight-part documentary series from “Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present” filmmakers Show of Force tries to explain the hard-to-define role of the producer in the music-making process using more than 150 original interviews with an eclectic mix of performers and producers. “Anybody can make sound,” indie star St. Vincent says, trying to explain how producers help artists rein in their creativity. “But not everybody can make music.”

As the last project the late Beatles producer George Martin was working on before his death in March, “Soundbreaking” includes a great deal of insight into his work with that group, though the series’ scope is far broader than that. In Nov. 14’s first episode, the filmmakers show how Martin was able to use multitrack recording to give The Beatles a new, deeper sound. “He brought a deep musicality — they had it intuitively and he had it intellectually,” Lido Beach native Rick Rubin says of Martin. “He could help them execute ideas that a less-skilled producer could not do.”

MY SAY The magic of “Soundbreaking” is on display early in the first episode, when Tom Petty starts singing the chords he was playing around with to producer Jeff Lynne. Lynne tells him to chop off one musical phrase and repeat another and suddenly “Free Fallin’ ” is born. Toward the end, there is another amazing moment when it becomes clear how Rubin’s production work with late-career Johnny Cash not only sparked new musical creativity, but also new confidence. That is the power of a great producer.

Once defined in the first episode, the rest of the series traces how the role of the producer has continued to evolve, especially in newer genres like hip-hop and EDM. The heart of the sixth episode, “The World Is Yours,” which airs Nov. 21, focuses on Roosevelt’s Public Enemy and how producers The Bomb Squad, led by Hank and Keith Shocklee, created the group’s distinctive sound. Public Enemy’s Chuck D has always been quick to share credit for the Rock and Roll Hall of Famers’ career with The Bomb Squad and “Soundbreaking” concisely shows why.

BOTTOM LINE A well-crafted, well-intentioned documentary series that excels when it offers rare concrete examples of the amorphous role producers play in the musical process, while also shining a spotlight on a who’s who of great producers.

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