Ken Burns on asking himself “the toughest questions” and how the Beatles influenced his filmmaking

Award-winning filmmaker Ken Burns, who says, “I’ve always loved the Beatles,” joined host Kenneth Womack to explain what the band means to him and his work on the season 4 premiere of “Everything Fab Four,” a podcast co -produced by me and Womack (a music scholar who also writes about pop music for Salon) and distributed by Salon.

Burns, widely known for his documentary series such as “The Civil War,” “Baseball,” “Jazz” and “The Vietnam War,” among others (including his latest, “The US and the Holocaust,” which premieres this week on PBS) tells Womack that he grew up with music, but wasn’t “fully invested” until the Beatles came out with “I Want To Hold Your Hand.” Later, as a teenager, he worked in a record store in Ann Arbor, MI, and says by far the shop’s biggest-selling title at that time was “Abbey Road.”

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Citing the pre-“Her Majesty” closing line on that album, “The love you take is equal to the love you make,” as “the greatest line in all of rock and roll,” Burns says that is exactly the reason the Beatles ‘ music has endured. Living in an age of “extreme divisiveness” is tempered, he explains, by “a four-letter word that FCC will let us say on the radio….love. And the Beatles say that in the most important way. There is no ‘ them.’ There is only ‘us.'”

In terms of his filmmaking, Burns credits the Beatles with “giving us permission to bite off more than we could chew,” having spread their art form and technique across many genres of music in a “style that is still genuine and authentically theirs.” He says he aims to do the same thing in his films, that “every time you start out, you’re reinventing,” calling his latest documentary his most important. Having spent seven years on the new miniseries “The US and the Holocaust,” about the “rare of civilization,” he says it’s heartbreaking to think about how much good in the world never got to see the light of day due to the atrocities that were committed to millions of people.

And jarred by the violence and racism that is still around today, Burns believes we are “obligated as human beings to make things better…. In order to be exceptional, you have to ask yourself the toughest questions. And this is exemplified in popular music by the Beatles.”

Listen to the entire conversation with Ken Burns on “Everything Fab Four” and subscribe via Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google, or wherever you’re listening.


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Host Kenneth Womack is the author of a two-volume biography on Beatles producer George Martin and the bestselling books “Solid State: The Story of Abbey Road and the End of the Beatles” and “John Lennon, 1980: The Last Days in the Life .” His newest project is the authorized biography and archives of Beatles road manager Mal Evans, due out in 2023.

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