Chances are, you’ve heard chatter about Ken Burns’ newest multi-chapter documentary, “The Vietnam War” from PBS. Maybe you’ve seen an installment or two. Along with co-documentarian, Lynn Novick, Burns once again takes a slice of American history and brings it home on screen. In fact, many screens.
But as we discussed in yesterday’s post about audio signatures, sound can play an integral role in a film, TV show, or series. And in the case of “The Vietnam War,” put an exclamation point on it.
This is a tough topic – a big hunk of unfinished business for America. And music became part of Burns and Novick’s storytelling mechanism.
As Novick told USA Today‘s Matt Alderton, “The music of the time is a character in the film.”
And speaking of its impact on our psyches, Burns added, “Music is the fastest art form there is. Two notes, and you feel something.”
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In the case of “The Vietnam War,” there are actually three soundtracks – traditional Vietnamese melodies from Yo-Yo Ma and The Silk Road Ensemble, the original score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, and of course, the soundtrack of the ’60s and ’70s that we now know as the earliest years of Classic Rock.
The Beatles’ Apple Corps group worked to make sure the Fab Four were a part of the project. The Beatles never before had licensed any of their songs for soundtracks. As Apple’s Jeff Jones told USA Today, “Knowing how important music would be to the telling of the Vietnam story, we knew we had to be their music partner.”
Other contributors included Experience Hendrix, and appropriately, there are several Jimi Hendrix songs in the doc as well, as long as many other evocative titles from the era.
And the documentary’s producers did their homework. They interviewed 100 people (yup, the size of a typical auditorium test) and divided them into “protestors” and “service members.” Each had to submit their 10 song list of favorites from the era – that’s right, their perfect Vietnam playlist. And it made for a true crowd-sourced soundtrack, a reason why “The Vietnam War” reeks of audio authenticity for all its 18 hours.
The timing of this seminal documentary is interesting and even intriguing for the radio industry. That’s especially the case as Classic Rock programmers grappling with the role of the ’60s on their stations. Ironically, decades old music from the Vietnam War period holds up well in most markets, but here’s the kicker:
Oftentimes, it’s the youngest audience – Millennials and thirtysomethings – who are most enthusiastic and even purist about this original era of ’60s rock. While they have a sense of appreciation for the ’80s, corporate rock, Hair bands, and some of the other Classic Rock subgenres, it’s the original British Invasion and Vietnam era soundtrack songs that most often resonates with the youngest listeners.
And it’s a reminder to all of us mature and experienced programmers and marketers that Classic Rock isn’t just for selling SUVs, hotel rooms, and new pharmaceuticals. It is still evocative, provocative, and powerful. It is a statement of the times in which we lived, something that Burns and Novick have brilliantly captured in their amazing documentary.
Here’s a trailer from “The Vietnam War,” airing this week and next on your area PBS station, but also available digitally from numerous sources.
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