Disney+ appears to have become the home of Beatles-related televisual events. 2021’s McCartney 3, 2, 1 saw Rick Rubin dissecting master tapes with bass man Paul and whet the appetite for Peter Jackson’s 468 minute, three-part Get Back, enhancing and finishing the job that Michael Lindsay-Hogg started with Let It Be. Now photographer Mary McCartney, Paul and Linda’s daughter, gets her turn with If These Walls Could Sing, a documentary charting 90-years of the much-loved Abbey Road studios.
This first-time director has been hanging around the place for years. In a rather alarming and panic-inducing start to proceedings, Mary’s narration of a rostrum shot of a photo of her as a baby in Abbey Road announces that said image was “taken by my mum, who was a photographer, and in a band with my dad.” Thankfully, this sick-rising-up-the-throat approach is quickly abandoned as archive footage, an impressive array of rock legends, George Martin’s son Giles (the contemporary remixer of his father’s original production work) and techy Lester Smith – gluing and screwing stuff back together in the back of the studios – are allowed to tell the story. This is a very watchable and entertaining, if short at under 90 minutes, music history documentary and it is refreshing to see the often laddish world of the recording studio shot through the prism of a female filmmaker.
While the mop tops from Liverpool understandably feature heavily (their EMI contract allowed them to practically eat as much time as they wanted in what was originally called EMI Studios prior to being renamed after The Beatles’ Abbey Road album six years after its release), If These Walls Could Sing falls somewhere between the needy gap between what Fab Four fans crave and what recording studio geeks drool over.
While it’s clearly a loving piece of work from a filmmaker with lots of connections to the subject, there are some seismic leaps in the story, notably from first tenant Edward Elgar conducting the LSO in 1931 in the studio purpose-built to house a symphony orchestra to the incoming jingle jangle of electric guitars of three decades later, with not much in-between. George Martin did some incredibly groundbreaking work recording comedy before The Beatles turned up in his life, which was also recorded at EMI Studios, but there’s no sniff of it. Although, apparently, M. McCartney’s take is not meant to be comprehensive. Rather, the director looked to find the moments in the story of Abbey Road where artists felt comfortable to dare to push themselves and create something new.
Ringo Starr, John Williams, Jimmy Page, Elton (“The smell of Abbey Road. The smell of fear.”) John, Baba Ani, David Gilmour, Roger Waters, Nick Mason, Noel Gallagher, Liam (“It’s a national treasure, know what I mean?”) Gallagher, George Lucas, Kate (“audio recording only”) Bush, Cliff Richard, Nile Rodgers, Ye, and Celeste all get to share their anecdotes and misty-eyed memories of this magical address. The most moving inclusion isn’t George Martin going on about Burt Bacharach putting Cilla Black through endless takes to capture the magic they’d already got on take 4 but archive material of Jacqueline du Pré. The cellist looks so happy bowing her strings, the secrets of the universe clearly in her grasp. Then she discovers she has multiple sclerosis and, as we hear, wraps up one Abbey Road session never to record again.
Paul McCartney, growing more Marmite with each new documentary that emerges due to his revisionism, wins some Brownie points for sharing the story that he salvaged a lot of equipment that EMI would otherwise have discarded, much of it part of rock history.
There’s a rather shocking bit of paperwork that appears on screen revealing that EMI also considered turning a huge chunk of this corner of north west London into a car park. For a while, when smaller studios offered a host of better and cheaper options for bands, Studio One – where Elgar did his thing in 1931 – was used as a badminton court by EMI staff clicking their heels but with an abundance of tape to mark out a court.
Very little is said about why or how Abbey Road is a special place to record in, although clearly everyone thinks it is. Composer John Williams talks of its size, dryness, reverberance and bloom but that’s about it. With the weight of 90 years behind it, the echoes of some British music royalty rattling around in the ether no doubt adds to whatever mystical quality the place has.
What Mary McCartney omits, in fairness to her because it’s not her subject matter, is that, at the time The Beatles swung, London’s Olympic Studios was home to pretty much everyone else, including The Rolling Stones, The Who and Jimi Hendrix (and, um, on occasion, The Beatles). Olympic was also the place where innovative FX such as the phaser and flanger were invented, its technology was, in 1967, more advanced than Abbey Road and the place had its own share of magic. None of which is anything to do with Mary McCartney – just a reminder that history gets kinda blurry.
If These Walls Could Sing isn’t a bad way to spend the length of a football match staring at a screen. It does capture the place in its heyday and there’s some really good content, although you probably won’t learn much that is new. Although for Mary Macca, that was the point, as she’s said: “I want to make it an emotional experience as a documentary, rather than doing all the historical points. I didn’t want it to feel like a lesson. I really, really hope the viewer falls in love with it.”
If These Walls Could Sing is available on Disney+ here: https://www.disneyplus.com/en-gb/movies/if-these-walls-could-sing/6qV9r0UnbXdm
You can buy three books celebrating what is arguably the most famous recording studio in the world at the links below, which will take you to my virtual bookshop on bookshop.org.