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TV REVIEW : The Evolution of 'Rock 'n' Roll' on PBS


"It seemed like on Monday there was no rock 'n' roll," says Robbie Robertson, recalling the early '50s in the first episode of "Rock & Roll," a 10-hour PBS documentary series. "There was Perry Como and Patti Page and the Four Lads. . . . And then on Tuesday it was like all these people had been waiting in the chutes, ready to come charging out."

If the former Band leader's sense of weight and wonder sounds like Carl Sagan talking about the Big Bang, it's fitting. "Rock & Roll," co-produced by Boston public station WGBH and the BBC, argues that the supernova of Little Richard and Elvis Presley was, culturally speaking, the creation of a whole new universe. And from there it lays out the history of rock as a series of subsequent bangs that spawned musical galaxies.

Each hourlong segment chronicles the birth and evolution of a rock 'n' roll upheaval (or sometimes two related ones), from Episode 1's examination of the first renegade explosions to the concluding segment's look at how the '80s-90s rise of rap mirrors those early developments.

A little too serious for rock 'n' roll? At times the series does treat the topic with the kind of solemnity more appropriate for "Cosmos" or "The Civil War," and some of the direction gets overly arty and heavy-handed. But overall, this ambitious, often insightful examination of the living art form that has been among the most dynamic cultural forces of the last four decades never forgets that rock is, foremost, a visceral experience that must be seen and heard to be understood.

Like "The History of Rock and Roll," another 10-hour series that ran earlier this year in syndication, "Rock & Roll" is loaded with star power, both in historic performance clips and both vintage and new interviews. Among the best: a teen Jimmy Page playing in a skiffle band on a BBC telecast, audio excerpts from an early-'60s radio session in which an acerbic Bob Dylan spars on the phone with fans, and clips from "D.O.A.," the documentary of the Sex Pistols' disastrous U.S. tour, with fresh commentary by John Lydon/Rotten.

But where in "History" the clips and interviews were the primary lure, here they serve as illustrations in a deeper--and more distinctly PBS--approach. The central thesis of "Rock & Roll" is that while the spotlight is on one rock movement, over in the shadows the musical, cultural and personality elements of the next wave are coming together.

Thus in this series, the Rolling Stones, who rejected early-'60s teen-pop and latched on to the darkness of American blues on their way to superstardom, are no more important than Lou Reed and Iggy Pop, who dismissed the Woodstockian love vibe of the late '60s and latched on to the darkness of the art underground, in a way that was more influential than directly popular.

And while such major figures as the Who, the Kinks and Bruce Springsteen are virtually ignored, Jamaican producer Lee Perry has considerable screen time in Episode 9's exploration of the parallels between the seemingly disparate punk and reggae rises of the '70s.

"Rock & Roll" also goes beyond the earlier series in probing the links between rock and society. In the second episode, "In the Groove," R&B singer Ben E. King notes that while the early years of rock 'n' roll represented a coming together of blacks and whites in shared music, the arrival of the Beatles left blacks feeling alienated, leading them to turn to such figures as James Brown as their own separate heroes.

That's echoed in Episode 4 ("Respect"), where the white studio musicians who backed top R&B artists at Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Ala., talk about the assassination of Martin Luther King driving a racial wedge into music. But that episode also has one of the lighter moments, a delightful chat with Maxine Powell, who ran Motown's finishing school, where the Supremes, Marvin Gaye et al were groomed for mainstream (meaning white) acceptance.

The tone is generally frank--for example, no apologies or disclaimers about the rampant drug experimentation that fueled the '60s psychedelic scene, the subject of the sixth segment, "Blues in Technicolor," which includes extensive interviews with the late Jerry Garcia.

Throughout the 10 hours, "Rock & Roll" has plenty to appeal to all generations of rock fans, from Elvis loyalists to youngsters who just came in with Green Day and Coolio. Shoot, even a Perry Como fan might gain an appreciation for all that noise.

* "Rock & Roll" airs 9-11 p.m. Sunday through Thursday on KCET-TV Channel 28.

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