If you’re a fan of a specific era of British rock ‘n’ roll, this is the year to attend the Telluride Film Festival. The festival’s opening day featured ‘Squaring the Circle’ by former photographer Anton Corbijn, who took a look at rock design firm Hipgnosis through memories of Paul McCartney, Jimmy Page, Roger Waters, Noah Gallagher and many others. And the next afternoon was ex-photographer Mary McCartney’s “If These Walls Could Sing,” which London recording studio Abbey Road looks at through the memories of, oh, Paul McCartney, Jimmy Page, Roger Waters, Noah Gallagher and many others.
While Squaring the Circle comes from a photographer and video director who has directed several other feature films in the past, including Control and A Most Wanted Man, If These Walls Could Sing is McCartney’s directorial debut. who nevertheless comes to the job with a real insider’s perspective: her father is of course Paul McCartney, and she has been coming to the studio made famous by her father’s band since she was a child.
In addition to McCartney, Page, Waters and Gallagher, the film also features interviews with Elton John, Ringo Starr, Celeste, John Williams, Cliff Richard, George Lucas, Kanye West and Giles Martin, the latter of whom thought Beatle’s daughter Paul McCartney was interviewing and filming the son of Beatles producer George Martin.
With all the family connections, one would expect “If These Walls Could Sing” to be affectionate, and it is. Mary McCartney celebrates Abbey Road Studio to the point where a few sequences in the film feel like they could be straight out of a promotional video, and she largely avoids the rockier stretches when the studio changed hands and could have been demolished, if it were, it would not have been protected by the UK Government with English Heritage Grade II status.
But few people would go to a documentary about Abbey Road looking for grimness or controversy. You are looking for stories about the Beatles recording “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” (or, yes, “Abbey Road,” the album whose cover turned the crosswalk in front of the building into a tourist attraction), or Pink Floyd, who created “The Dark Side of the Moon,” or maybe for John Williams, who records the music for “Raiders of the Lost Ark” or some of the “Star Wars” films, or Kanye West, who performs live there.
And all of those stories can be found in “If These Walls Could Sing,” which begins in 1931 with the conversion of a nine-bedroom townhouse in London’s St John’s Wood into a state-of-the-art house (much like it was in 1931) recording studio. There is footage of British composer Edward Elgar recording one of his “Pomp and Circumstance Marches” there with the London Symphony Orchestra before the film jumps back nearly three decades when Cliff Richard’s “Move It” brought rock ‘n’ roll to Abbey road brought. ”
But Richard is just a taste of the big band, the Beatles, who recorded most of their albums there with George Martin, partly because it was a good studio and partly because their record deal with EMI gave them unlimited studio time at one place owned by the company . (Although everyone called the studio Abbey Road because that’s where it was located, its real name was EMI Studios; it was officially renamed after the Beatles’ Abbey Road album — not immediately after, as the film suggests, but six years later.)
The film jumps back and forth in time; Sometimes it focuses on the studio itself, but other times the location is secondary to stories about the music that was made there. Classical artists Daniel Barenboim and Jacqueline du Pré will receive contributions, as will Cilla Black’s recording of Burt Bacharach’s “Alfie” and a young Elton John, who performed as session pianist on the Hollies hit “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother”. it’s your turn. John says he remembers “the smell of Abbey Road” – which he then admits in his case it was “the smell of fear” coming from a newcomer who was amazed to eventually meet Paul McCartney in the same find space.
A move from the early ’80s to make the studio hospitable to the recording of film scores is portrayed as key to making Abbey Road viable in this decade, and John Williams is as eloquent as anyone in film when it comes to the merits of the huge Studio A of the complex. Meanwhile, Noel and Liam Gallagher, the two frequently bickering brothers who fronted British band Oasis, are amusing as they predictably disagree (in separate interviews) over whether Oasis was actually kicked out of Abbey Road for being too boisterous was.
While the individual stories can be amusing, they add up to a collection of vignettes rather than a coherent portrait, given that such a thing is even possible for a place that has hosted music for so many decades. “If These Walls Could Sing” (title courtesy of Mary McCartney’s father) is often charming and never less than affectionate, but it’s also easy, a pleasing but scattered love letter to a building, a crosswalk, and an era.