‘If These Walls Could Sing’ review: Doc spotlights Abbey Road studios
It’s fair to say that Abbey Road Studios is the most documented recording facility in the world, but only if you count the pedestrian crossing outside. Otherwise, the nine-bedroom mansion-turned-studio hasn’t quite had its day in the cinematic sun, as smaller studios like Los Angeles’ Sound City and Alabama’s Muscle Shoals have. Making up for that with an A-lister-filled movie treatment is “If These Walls Could Sing,” Mary McCartney’s feature-length documentary debut, which has one hell of a shared Rolodex to lean on to bring rock ‘n’ roll together. firsthand’ roll the anecdotes you expect and want in a movie like this. She’s also savvy enough to know that the guy working in the back to glue irreplaceable mid-century microphones deserves a few seconds of screen time, too.
McCartney begins her film by showing a baby photo of herself in the studio, “taken by my mom, who was a photographer, and in a group with my dad.” It’s a timid signal for Paul McCartney to prevail with the shared memory of the family bringing their pony – named Jet! — to the studio back when they were making “Band on the Run” in the early ’70s. It’s an irresistibly cute opener, even if you hope there aren’t many more family movie moments.
There are not any. Aside from a few fleeting snippets of narration and an overheard question or two, she all but disappears from the film and also ensures that some superstars who’ve never bought her a horse get equal race time, from Pink Floyd (“Dark Side of the Moon” alone represents a good part of the film) to the late Fela Kuti. You know the doc is going to stay on a good track even when young McCartney devotes an early segment to Jacqueline du Pre, a cellist who was a classical music crossover superstar among the less swinging parts of London and the UK. United in the mid-1960s – setting up how Abbey Road could be most renowned in the 21st century, less for its rock production than as an orchestral score stage for John Williams and other great composers.
It is Williams, who first directed ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ there and doesn’t seem to have left it much behind since, who tries best to describe the real qualities of what makes Abbey Road unique as a studio, as opposed to a magical talisman. Speaking of what appears to be a huge hall there which is mainly used for scoring, he says it could have been bigger: “It seemed too small. It’s a bit like a shoebox”, emphasizes the maestro. “Whereas old filming scenes, like the ones we had in Hollywood, have huge volume, so it’s a very long echo and nice bloom, which can hurt articulation and specific instruments. Abbey Road looked perfect…not too reverberant and not so dry that it didn’t bloom nicely.
But Disney Documentaries didn’t choose this film because Williams is featured prominently, but because they’ve been doing pretty well in the Beatles business lately. “If These Walls Could Sing” has a decent amount of fabulously fun moments to satisfy that craving (like Ringo Starr unexpectedly springing up on “Yer Blues” from the white album, which they eventually went to a storage closet for to register). Mary’s dad notices the old-sounding piano the Beatles borrowed in the mid-’60s from novelty act Mrs. Mills, and sits down to play “Lady Madonna” on it. The filmmaker also brings in another expert witness, George Martin’s son, Giles Martin, to offer some of the most well-articulated thoughts on the band and the studio, knowing a good Scion when she sees one.
Is the studio “spiritual”? Nile Rodgers pooh-poohs this idea – “This magical thing exists in artists, but artists are superstitious” – before allowing producers and artists to really connect faster in a revered studio because they have the fear shared to just be there. In an audio-only interview, reborn star Kate Bush talks about the studio’s historic reluctance to repaint for fear that even the slightest tampering will affect the sound (although things may have been spat out since she was there) . Giles Martin says, “I think it’s kind of like you’re never supposed to clean a teapot. You are supposed to leave the tea residue because then the tea infuses.
For the most part, the film tends to be a collection of mini-essays about individual recording experiences, which is probably as it should be. Jimmy Page, who was session guitarist during the 1964 “Goldfinger” theme song session, describes how Shirley Bassey lengthened that last note until it fell apart. This could count as a highlight of the film if it wasn’t replaced by a mid-60s vintage film clip of a teenage Page being interviewed by ITV about his experiences in what was then still called the EMI studio , in which he says meeting his heroes as a session player there were “disappointing” – and he says it in a squeaky voice that doesn’t seem affected by puberty yet.