'If These Walls Could Sing' Is Worthy of Abbey Road's Legacy

Directed by Mary McCartney

Starring Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Elton John, Liam Gallagher, Noel Gallagher, John Williams, Cliff Richard, Celeste, Giles Martin

Photo: Mary McCartney

BY Rachel HoPublished Jan 6, 2023

It can be hard to truly encapsulate what an inanimate object means to a person, let alone to an entire industry. Giles Martin, record producer, musician and son of famed Beatles producer George Martin, perhaps said it best about Abbey Road Studios: "You're never meant to clean out a teapot. You're meant to leave the residue of the tea because then the tea infuses. ... You walk down into Studio Two and you feel as though the walls are saturated with great music."

For Mary McCartney, photographer, filmmaker and, of course, daughter of Paul McCartney, Abbey Road Studios isn't just a place where iconic music was composed and illustrious artists developed; it's a big part of her childhood, too.

With this unique perspective (and the weight her surname offers), Mary McCartney is not only able to bring together some of the biggest names who have walked the halls of Abbey Road, she is also able to lend a personal touch not many else can to a poignant and informative film about the fabled music studio.

If These Walls Could Sing spans the history of Abbey Road Studios, from its purchase and beginnings as EMI Recording Studios in the 1930s to the reverence and magic it holds in present day. McCartney interviews many of the renowned musicians who helped to create the lore of the unassuming two-storey building in St. John's Wood, including her father (naturally), Ringo Starr, Elton John, Liam and Noel Gallagher (interviewed separately for obvious reasons), John Williams and Cliff Richard. She bulks out the talking head commentary with audio clips from Kate Bush, Kanye West and others describing their impressions and fondness for the studio, as well.

While the more widely recognizable rock and pop stars take up the majority of the film, McCartney also gives space for the classical musicians (such as cellist Jacqueline Du Pré), international singers, and audio technicians and engineers who have all aided and added to Abbey Road. The engineers' inclusion in the film is particularly welcome, as McCartney shows the studio's strength beyond its impressive roster of artists. The techniques and philosophy of Abbey Road were ahead of their time when the Beatles recorded there, and the studio continues to be one of the best in the business today. 

This balance that McCartney provides in If These Walls Could Sing elevates the documentary beyond being a stereotypical "love letter" to the studio. By showing the different artists that came through the doors and why they did in the first place, Abbey Road Studios becomes less of a mythical place in London and more tangible to viewers.

The other strength of the film comes in its editing and production. Covering nearly a century's worth of history in 89 minutes (and making it exciting for die-hard audiophiles and casual music fans alike) isn't easy. Archival clips are beautifully restored and often shown in a split screen format reminiscent of the 1972 concert documentary Elvis on Tour (which was edited by Martin Scorsese). Just as it had done for the King, the split screen overwhelms viewers with images showing the frenetic excitement of the era very effectively.

If These Walls Could Sing swiftly moves through the different eras, beginning with the first archival clips from 1931 of the London Symphony Orchestra recording "Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1" in Studio 1. The shift to rock 'n' roll via Cliff Richard in the UK and the Beatlemania that followed is explored in great detail, emphasizing Abbey Road's position in music history. McCartney takes a breath when approaching the late '70s and early '80s, before taking a triumphant step with John Williams recording the scores to Raiders of the Lost Ark and Return of the Jedi at 3 Abbey Road.

The final few clips include a performance from John Legend and Kanye West in 2005, and singer Celeste performing in Studio 2 in front of an orchestra last year. There's a bit of a shock to the senses when these clips are shown in full HD, contrasting the grainy footage we had been seeing to this point, which further reiterates the longevity of the studio.

There's a natural ebb and flow to the life of Abbey Road Studios that McCartney rides perfectly by simply allowing the stories to tell themselves. For such a tight runtime, McCartney manages to extol the greatness of the space without leaving anything unsaid. If These Walls Could Sing never becomes a boring educational film, nor does it even teeter on becoming a work of overdone sentimentalism. McCartney brings to life one of music history's most storied spaces with a film worthy of the legends who built it.

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