September 11. The assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The Stonewall riots. Music is a unique lens through which to view these and other highly examined, momentous events that have shaped world history over the past half a century.
That is the concept behind the distinctive eight-part documentary series “Soundtracks: Songs That Defined History,” airing on CNN, in which each hourlong episode focuses on a groundbreaking historical event or period of time.
The series premieres tonight, April 20, with an episode centering on the 1968 King assassination, which marked a turning point in the civil rights struggle and a throughline that continues to the Black Lives Matter movement of today.
The program places significant music of the time, including that by artists like Joan Baez, Peter, Paul & Mary, Nina Simone and James Brown, in context with King’s philosophy of peaceful resistance and proponents of more violent responses to racism and segregation.
The episode also looks at the activism of musicians, exemplified by Stevie Wonder’s successful campaign to establish a Martin Luther King holiday and Kendrick Lamar’s searing protest song “Alright” that became an anthem for the Black Lives Matter movement.
Other topics to be examined by the series include the Vietnam War and the National Guard shootings of students at Kent State University, Hurricane Katrina, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the first moon landing in 1969 and the explosion of the modern-day women’s rights movement, including the “battle of the sexes” tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs.
Many of the key participants are interviewed, adding insights gleaned not only from their experiences at the time, but also through the perspective of the decades that have passed.
“Soundtracks: Songs That Defined History” is executive produced by Dwayne Johnson and Dany Garcia (Seven Bucks Productions) and Emmy and Peabody Award winners Maro Chermayeff and Jeff Dupre (Show of Force).
We spoke with Dupre and Chermayeff about exploring the music behind such iconic moments in history. Here is an edited version of our conversation:
TVWeek: This is such an encompassing project, a history book come to life. How did you first come to “Soundtracks,” and how did you decide which pivotal events in history would be included?
Maro Chermayeff: The idea for the series emerged out of conversations with CNN and with Dwayne Johnson about different ways of looking at history, and how music is such an interesting lens through which to view historical events. We were all excited by the idea, and it grew very quickly into a full-fledged concept. There are so many great historical events that come alive through music. We managed to whittle the list down to eight for the first season, but there are so many more stories to tell, and songs to hear.
TVWeek: Each chapter is unique, but what was your overall concept in how the music itself may have determined how each story was told?
Jeff Dupre: When we think of history, we think of dates, facts and interpretations of what happened in the past. Music has the ability to convey something beyond information. It lets us know what people were feeling — about the war in Vietnam, or the struggle for gay rights, or women’s rights. It has the ability to capture the feeling of a moment in time. The series really focuses on the special power music has to actually become a driver of change, and to enable us to connect emotionally to the past.
TVWeek: The interviews with musicians and other key figures looking back through the lens of history are fascinating. What were some of the most revelatory moments for you?
Chermayeff: Andrew Young, whose firsthand account of the assassination of Martin Luther King was both detailed and devastating, as was his ability to reframe the significance of Dr. King and his legacy.
Billy Joel gave an incredibly generous and insightful interview on the 9/11 episode and on the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Dupre: Paul Simon wrote the song “The Sounds of Silence” when he was only 21 years old, many years before 9/11. But in the wake of that tragedy, he performed the song for the families of the deceased and the survivors. The story powerfully illustrates how anthems can take on new meanings over time, how they can come attached to historical events, and how they can bring people together.
Also, Melissa Etheridge talking about how her song “Come to My Window” unexpectedly became an anthem for the LGBTQ community.
TVWeek: How would you describe some of the most exciting rare, archival footage that was discovered?
Chermayeff: Melissa Etheridge gave us the video footage she shot herself of the fall of the Berlin Wall. It was really special to be able to use her own personal document of that momentous event.
Dupre: We have a number of Henry Diltz’s rare contact sheets and photographs of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young recording “Ohio” right after Kent State in 1970.
The Kent State episode also features great “home movie” footage of Nancy Sinatra walking through Saigon with her military escort, as well as footage of her performing for the troops at Phu Cat Air Base.
TVWeek: Many viewers may not be aware that David Hasselhoff was a huge musical performing star in Germany. What are some of the other “hidden gems” that viewers may discover throughout the series?
Chermayeff: Stevie Wonder’s song “Happy Birthday” was written in an effort to get the US government to officially recognize Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday as a national holiday.
John Denver was a huge advocate of the US space program, and was actually the person who thought of the idea of putting a civilian on the space shuttle. He wanted to go himself, but ultimately the teacher Christa McAuliffe was selected for the trip, which ended in tragedy. John Denver remained incredibly supportive of NASA for the rest of his life.
Dupre: Most people know Dolly Parton’s song “9 to 5” from the movie of the same name, but fewer people realize that 9 to 5 was an actual organization, created in the late ’70s to help women fight against discrimination in the workplace. One of the co-founders — Karen Nussbaum, interviewed in our show — was friends with Jane Fonda. When Jane learned about her organization she decided to make a movie about it, and many of the stories in the film come from real-life stories of women who were harassed in the workplace … and got revenge on their bosses!
TVWeek: What do you hope viewers take away from the program?
Dupre: The world is going through a lot of big changes right now. We feel the stories we’re telling in “Soundtracks” have an even deeper resonance at this moment in time, because some of the struggles we cover in the series seem to be coming around again.
We hope that when our audience hears anthems such as “Ohio” by Crosby Stills & Nash & Young, or “A Change Is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke, or “Born in the USA” by Bruce Springsteen, they will be a potent reminder of what unites us as Americans, and of what we’re made of.
(“Soundtracks: Songs That Defined History” premieres on CNN Thursday, April 20, at 10 p.m. ET/PT.)