The Story of the Songs is packed with fascinating anecdotes about some of the biggest hits of the 20th century. Director Oliver Wright tells us how his pandemic project came together.
SBS Guide

1 Feb 2021 - 2:29 PM  UPDATED 14 Jan 2022 - 11:45 AM

The Story of the Songs examines the careers of some of the biggest mainstream music artists of the 20th century, by zeroing in on three key tracks in their discographies, to tell the bigger story.

The series has incredible access to the songwriters and musicians who were instrumental (pun intended) to the success of the songs, and director Oliver Wright says this access is largely due to the global Covid-19 pandemic and its resultant series of lockdowns. 

“I have had the busiest period of my career in the last year in lockdown because so many of the documentaries that I make involve filming interviews that can be done with remote cameras and archive, and you can even do the voiceovers through a computer app. So I’ve literally made more television in the last year than I’ve ever made.

“In all seriousness, that is one of the biggest stories about The Story of the Songs: the fact that because of lockdown, we cleaned up. We had musicians that were at the top of their game. Some of the world’s best songwriters, video directors, musicians, all at home, unable to gig, bored silly. And so we just cleaned up and we got the most incredible people. Like Diane Warren, for example (in the Celine Dion episode). I mean, I couldn’t believe we got Diane Warren and yeah, we got her. And I guess that was partly down to the fact she was probably at home, very bored.

“We got the Holland Brothers. It is very, very hard to get an interview with the Holland Brothers. And we got an interview with the Holland Brothers! We got Curtis Hudson, the guy who wrote ‘Holiday’ for Madonna, sitting there playing it on his bass. It’s just amazing. And also I think what’s worth noting as well, is that quite a few of those interviews were done with cameras that are delivered to the door of the property.”

How does this technology work?

“They plugged the cameras into their laptop, which connects via app to the director back in the UK who then talks to them to set up their eyeline, often by saying, ‘Stick a Post-it on the wall. Look at that when you’re talking.’ And that’s how we did a lot of the interviews.

“What impresses me so much about the series is that if it was any time of year, anytime in the last 10 years, I think it would be a brilliant series. But the fact the whole thing was made while we were under lockdown, I think is remarkable.” 

So, it was produced over the course of lockdown, but when did you actually conceive of the idea for the series?

“We did a show called Abba, Secrets of Their Greatest Hits, which aired on Nine Network in Australia. It was a massive hit because what we did is we decided to tell the stories of Abba through three of their biggest hits. One at the beginning, one at the middle, and one at the end. And it worked so well because what it enabled you to do is really open up the stories of those songs, which were key moments in their careers.

“Abba’s ‘Dancing Queen’ was when they discovered the power of disco and they worked out by copying a disco beat of another song. They literally copied the disco beat of another song to get the rhythm for ‘Dancing Queen’. Anyway, that show was incredibly successful. It sold all over the world. In fact even Sweden bought it. And they said, ‘We hardly ever buy documentaries about Abba but we bought this one.’

“It was bought by an American network called Reelz who loved it. And so they came to us and said, ‘Could you put that format on other artists?’ So we went, ‘Sure.’ So we basically, because we’re part of Viacom, we can use all the music videos that are held by MTV. So we’re in a unique position to be able to use the music videos. And so we just basically liaised with Reelz in America and we agreed on a whole load of artists who they knew would be popular in America and therefore generally worldwide and literally repeated the Abba format across all these other artists.”

So how did you hit on which songs to focus on? These are artists with enormous catalogues.

“I’ll be totally honest. It varies depending on which music videos are available to us. So with Abba, all the music videos were available. With Cher, all the music videos were available and often it’s to do with the contracts they have with their managers and their publishers. So for example, if you’ve got someone like Abba or Cher, who tended to stay with the same management team across their career, you don’t have such a problem. But Madonna has had many different deals. And so we were actually only able to use the first few tracks from Madonna’s career, but in a way that worked quite well with Madonna because ‘Holiday’, ‘Like a Virgin’ and ‘Material Girl’ all have really strong stories behind them.

“And really the unique thing about Madonna was how she rose to fame so rapidly and really tapped into culturally what was going on, especially with ‘Material Girl’. I mean, ‘Material Girl’ summed up the era. It was a materialistic age where everyone was spending. It was Dynasty, it was shoulder pads. It was bling.

“There was a lot to say with those songs. With most, we tried to do as much as possible within the music videos that were available to us to stretch them out across, tell the whole career story. But on occasions where we were limited, we found other ways of doing it.”

With Madonna, I love the story of the songwriter of ‘Like A Virgin’ who finally got to meet her and was brushed off immediately.

“That’s my favourite as well. I mean, it’s so telling, isn’t it?”

I know. It’s like, ‘Ouch, that’s cold’. And so, I assume you intentionally didn’t approach the artists themselves to participate? It seems that you wanted their stories, but not as told by them?

“Yes, that’s right. Because a bit like with Abba, getting the musicians to tell the tale, you get the real story. The problem is the moment you involve the artist, generally what tends to happen is they want to steer your editorial down a path that then just becomes a big advert for them. Whereas I think what you get in these shows is you get the real stories. You get the people who really knew them and tell it like it is.”

And so who do you think was the biggest coup? I think you might’ve said that already with Diane Warren, but who were the biggest acts that you just said, I can’t believe we got [insert name here]?’

“Well, as you’ve already mentioned, Diane Warren, whose tale about Celine Dion and the way that she wrote that song about her own father (‘Because You Loved Me’). I mean, I well up every time I see it, it’s so powerful. She wrote it about her father and then there’s Celine, the way she feels for her partner echoes that. It is really powerful.

“I think the Holland Brothers, undoubtedly having the Holland Brothers (Brian and Eddie). They were the guys... Out of the guys who really helped to define the Motown sound, they were two of them. And they’ve seen so many people, so many great artists perform for the first time and they have so many stories.”

Did this series change your preconceived opinions of anyone?

“100%. I now like Celine Dion and I didn’t before; and there were many people on the production who were the same. I always thought Celine Dion was a bit twee. She was music for the masses. I didn’t feel she resonated with me, but after I learned her story and that she really was this genuine, beautiful voice that was taken from obscurity and pushed into the limelight and that actually her naffness is really part of her. She really is that slightly nervous little girl still. And I fell in love with her because of the story. And also that song, ‘Because You Loved Me’. I fell in love with that song because of making the show.

“And Whitney. I mean, now I see Whitney in a new light. I was broken-hearted at the end of making that show because to hear so many people like the choreographer, Arlene Phillips, say how she was very unique. She said, ‘There weren’t any people like her who would be so generous to everyone on the sets. And so kind.’ And she clearly was this really lovely, kind woman who was destroyed through her drug-taking relationship with Bobby Brown. And so, yeah, I think these shows, and I think that’s one of the brilliant things that...

“There’s many things I love about these shows. I’m sure you can tell I’m very passionate about them, but there’s many things I love about these shows. The opening up to the stories, the learning of the musical influences, learning of these musical journeys. But I think one of the things I love about them most is that they do change your perception of these artists quite dramatically. You learn who they were as human beings and in doing so it actually changes the way you feel about the music bit.”

And you find a new way to cover these people whose stories are well covered elsewhere. Say, with Whitney Houston, especially. She was the subject of two feature-length docs a couple years ago, but they focused on her personal life, and one was an authorised biography from the family. But you managed to find a new way to tell her story, through the songs.

“Yes, that’s what it’s all about. So the company I work for, Viacom International Studios, we make a lot of documentaries and we did one recently about Princess Diana, where we opened up the whole Panorama speech thing long before anyone else did, and how she shared that with her personal advisor in a car. And you just suddenly learned this story that you thought you knew, but you didn’t know.

“And I think what I love about documentary making now is it is increasingly about digging into the detail. Instead of trying to tell a million stories in an hour, telling just two and opening them right up. And I think that’s what we do with these shows is by selecting just three songs, we’re able to just open up really specific stories and specific moments in time in a way that’s far more satisfying than a big spooling biography.” 

It strikes me that this could be a format you could keep doing. Are you keen to do some more?

“Absolutely, we are hoping to make some more.”

Great. And so what else are you working on at the moment?

“A series of Hollywood icons. So 7 x 90-minute documentaries, each of which explore a Hollywood icon, but through a slightly different prism than you’re used to. So Marilyn Monroe for example, was ahead of her time. Did you know she had her own production company?”

No I did not.

“I didn’t know that either. She discovered Ella Fitzgerald, championed Ella Fitzgerald’s career. She had a lot going for her. She had a terrible upbringing and yet she pushed herself into modelling and then into film work and she made it, but ultimately she was destroyed by her internal demons. And also I think to a certain extent by the ghastly men who ran the studio. And so she’s a Me Too story. And we feel like having interrogated Marilyn, that if she was alive now, if her career had started in the nineties say, it would be a different story.

“But sadly, she was a victim of her era. So as you can see, we’re looking at each icon to try to tell the story in a slightly different way. And again, just opening up moments that reveal more. Yeah. We’re also doing a series of programs about how Britain survived during the war, because it’s very similar. Having lockdown, when everyone was at home, there was rationing, homeschooling, all of that. So we’re doing that as well. And we’re also doing a series about 1980s hits. Britain’s favourite eighties hits, which I imagine could translate well into Australia because I think a lot of our favourite hits are your favourite hits.”

And a lot of Australians are also involved in those hits.

“Oh no question, Kylie and all the rest.”

The Story of the Songs screens Saturdays at 6.35pm on SBS VICELAND with episodes at SBS On Demand after broadcast.