Entertainment » Television

Tony Palmer’s "All You Need Is Love"

by Robert Newton
National Film Editor
Wednesday May 14, 2008
Tony Palmer’s "All You Need Is Love"
  (Source:MVD Visual)

Before Ken Burns was the renowned documentarian Ken Burns, there was Tony Palmer, providing exhaustive coverage on a variety of subjects to television audiences. His filmography over the last 40 years is impressive, including topics as diverse as the U.S. space program ("The Space Movie"), opera legend Maria Callas ("La Divina: A Portrait") and one truly bizarre pairing of two incredible phenomena -- the Third Reich and the Fab Four ("All This And World War II.") Upon the urging of pal John Lennon in the mid-70s, Palmer set out to document the progress and significance of popular music to date. The result was 17 episodes of "Very Serious Discussion," told by not only learned scholars of the day, but many of the artists who made 20th century what it was. Over 30 years after it was first broadcast, it has been fully remastered and is finally available for home viewing, and boy, is it one doozy of a box set.

Hardly a minor relic meant to capitalize on the popular music of the day (rock ’n’ roll doesn’t even come up until Episode 13), Palmer chased down many leads in drawing this massive family tree.

If you can ignore the fact that all the subjects of the contemporary footage are at least 30 years out of fashion and shot on lo-fi 16mm film (the TV docu standard at the time), there is a whole lot of heft to behold. Hardly a minor relic meant to capitalize on the popular music of the day (rock 'n' roll doesn't even come up until Episode 13), Palmer chased down many leads in drawing this massive family tree. From its African origins to Tin Pan Alley to the musical play to country to glitter rock, he followed every root and shoot. Sometimes, he uncovered footage that was believed to exist, like the rare clip of folk legend Woody Guthrie, and on occasion, got the last interview ever with some of his subjects, like Bing Crosby. The narration is dry but erudite, and the production values are simple -- a talking head with a simple caption cut together with pertinent visuals. An obvious inspiration for Python alum Eric Idle's Beatles spoof, "The Rutles," it works on many levels, despite our raised expectations for this kind of mega-scope presentation in the years since.

There is the occasional unevenness in tone -- like segueing from long clip of a teen-besieged Osmonds limousine to a debate as to whether modern black music has direct links to African folk music -- but these become increasingly less frequent as the series progresses. Thankfully, the clash is not the "Willy Wonka" style "Wondrous Boat Ride" kind of freak-out that characterized Palmer's slightly juvenile 1968 exploration of rock music, "All My Loving." Seven years later, he was obviously floating a lot of ideas during this grand passage into grown-up filmmaking, and his ambition and skill, coupled with the unprecedented access he had to the titans of the day -- Lennon, McCartney, Presley, Zappa, Clapton -- lent him the credibility with younger audiences who later became the older and more cultured audiences that he has been making films for since.

*SPECIAL FEATURES: Nearly 15 hours of historical film lovingly remastered isn’t special enough for you?

Robert Newton is the National Film Editor for EDGE. He is also Editor of North Shore Movies Weekly, and a film and TV writer for a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites. He is also an award-winning novelty recording artist (aka "Fig"), and runs The Cape Ann Community Cinema on the island of Gloucester, MA.


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