ELLY GRIMM • Leader & Times
London’s Abbey Road studio has been around for nearly a century and has seen many artists come through the doors including Pink Floyd, The Beatles, Adele, and Elton John, among many others. Since I’m a music nerd, when I saw Mary McCartney’s documentary feature debut “If These Walls Could Sing” on Disney+, I knew I would probably enjoy learning about one of the most historic music studios in history.
To start off, McCartney was a good choice for this project’s director, and her care and passion for the studio shows throughout the movie. She begins the movie by talking about how she spent much of her childhood in the studio with her father, Sir Paul McCartney, and with that level of care and experience in the place, she definitely knows what she’s talking about. I also liked some of the creative cinematographic choices she makes throughout the movie, especially with the archive footage she uses throughout, because it almost reminded me of the picture in a picture feature some TVs have. McCartney’s use of certain rooms of the studio as the background/setting for the interviews was very clever and with each subject, I couldn’t help but think, ‘That particular room suits them PERFECTLY!’
Something else I appreciated throughout the movie was the wide variety of artists interviewed, which includes Elton John, Celeste, Sheku Kanneh-Mason and Jimmy Page, among many others. That variety truly helped underscore just how historic the Abbey Road studio is and how instrumental (pun intended) the studio was in helping launch so many different careers and in such a wide variety of musical genres. Most of the artists interviewed used some variation of ‘holy’ or ‘sacred’ to describe the building and how important it was for them, and I feel like when that many people use those types of words in one setting, it’s probably not a coincidence. One story that was featured that particularly amused me came near the end with John Williams’ interview and when he talked about his experiences recording the famous “Star Wars” and “Indiana Jones” themes and recording some other music at a point where the studio was not doing very well and almost had to get rid of its biggest space. That story amused me because afterward, I couldn’t help but think ‘So yet again, it’s the band/orchestra kids who saved something from ruin.’ Overall, the movie is not only a showcase of the talent that’s passed through the studio but also a bit of an insight into the recording process, particularly in the earlier days, and I was surprised at just how clearly these artists could recall their respective recording sessions.
I also really appreciated how the movie does a good job of balancing history and humor throughout the interviews, particularly with the interviews done with former Beatle Ringo Starr, who I found WAY funnier than he had any right to be. There are also some more somber moments/stories recounted in the movie, and I was glad to see McCartney not shy away from them. One story I found particularly heartbreaking was that of Jacqueline du Pré, whose cello career was cut too short by multiple sclerosis.
Given how the studio is 90 years old, the movie also made me wonder several things, particularly with record-keeping/archiving. There were a few points in the movie when original recordings are featured, and I couldn’t help but wonder “Exactly HOW extensive are the archives there, and just how is everything preserved?!” I was also left wondering just what sorts of renovations (if any) have been done in the building throughout the decades, and how extensive they were. And because I’m a band geek myself, I also couldn’t help but think throughout the movie, with all the instruments featured and kept at Abbey Road, what stories could THEY tell and what musicians’ hands have they been in? For me, it’s almost too mind-boggling to contemplate. And with the building being as old as it is, and with the sheer amount of people who have been through the doors, I also appreciated some love and appreciation being shown to the technicians and other studio support people, because without them, there wouldn’t even BE a recording industry.
While I thought Mary McCartney was a good choice for this project, and I feel like she truly did a good job, there were a few minor quibbles I had with the finished product. To begin, I knew the movie would feature Sir Paul McCartney (honestly, how could it not, given his history?), but there are a few points where the movie almost veers toward becoming a Beatles documentary feature. Also, I felt the movie could have been more linear and structured, because there are some points where I felt the movie was kind of jumpy, and with that in mind, I also felt the movie could have done a better job of talking about more musical eras, because there seems to be a primary focus on the 1960s and 70s, with later decades rather hastily tacked on at the end. Granted, there were a lot of things historically that happened in the music world during the 1960s and 70s, but there have been milestones reached and other artists come onto the scene since then. A project like this would almost be better in a miniseries format or something like that given how extensive the studio’s history is.
Overall, I enjoyed “If These Walls Could Sing” and would give it a “B” grade. The interviews are great as are the artists featured, and there’s clearly a lot of care involved in the project. However, there were some creative choices I would have thought twice about when putting it all together. If you’re a fan of music history, “If These Walls Could Sing” would be a good one to cue up.