With Documentary on Abbey Road Studios, Mary McCartney Digs Into the Family Legacy, but Also 90 Years of Recording Lore

·10 min read

When Mary McCartney was approached by producer John Battsek (“Searching for Sugar Man,” “One Day in September”) to make a film about the legendary Abbey Road Studios in London, she didn’t immediately leap at the chance, the way almost any other photographer interested in making the leap into documentary filmmaking might have. It’s not difficult to guess at the reason she might have balked at, and then succumbed to, the idea of making “If These Walls Could Sing,” which premiered at the Telluride Film Festival over the weekend and has been picked up for airing on Disney+.

“I think because of my surname, I get a little bit oversensitive,” says the daughter of Paul McCartney, sitting at a sidewalk-adjacent table in Telluride. “I used to sort of shy away from anything to do with my family, wanting with my photography to be making a name for myself in my own area. I mean, I’ve always been really proud of my family, but then recently I’ve realized (I should) actually not shy away from it because I feel like I’m being judged. …. Before, I was like, my family’s my family and my career’s my career, and now I’m at the point where I’m confident enough to merge the two.”

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It didn’t hurt in making that allowance that the Beatles’ adventures at Abbey Road in the ’60s are obviously only part of the studio’s story, albeit a significant enough one that it will help fill Disney+’s craving for post-“Get Back” Beatles content. (No premiere date for the film on the service has yet been announced.) Fans of classic rock will likely take just as great an interest in the stories told by Roger Waters, David Gilmour and Nick Mason about the making of “The Dark Side of the Moon,” say, as they will in McCartney’s chats with her dad and Ringo Starr. But in talking with the director, you quickly get a sense of who she considers a rock star.

“I literally was like ‘I love my job’ that I got to interview John Williams. It was a highlight of my life,” she says. “Oh my God, I fell in love with him. He’s so talented and such a gentleman, and just being in his presence and sitting with him made me feel really happy.”

Mary McCartney at the Telluride Film Festival, Sept. 4, 2022
Mary McCartney at the Telluride Film Festival, Sept. 4, 2022

Williams is a key participant in “If These Walls Could Sing,” representing how the studio being in the classical music business for much of its history, and film scoring after that, really flourished anew after Williams scored “Raiders of the Lost Ark” in the orchestra-sized Studio 1, and has often returned for “Star Wars” sequels and other projects. It’s Williams who is most eloquent in describing the particular aural characteristics of the facilities at Abbey Road, although McCartney notes that “he does it in such an eloquent way, it almost isn’t technical, because you can understand it as a lay person.”

As she explains it, “I’m making it for an audience to bring them into the studio. It’s not really about all the technical innovation and things like that. It’s more about the album stories, personal-to-life stories and the space and how much it means to people. And with the interviews, I tried to keep them very relaxed and intimate and conversational. I wanted an informality to it, like an approachability.”

That goes for the chat with her father, who, although invariably charming in interviews, seems to be giving an extra 20% when he’s with her. She agrees: “I felt that too. I was really happy, because when you interview people, you don’t know what mood they’re gonna be in on the day. But dad is so passionate about Abbey Road, he was very good at talking about particularly the people who work there and what amazing technicians they are, so I think that maybe is why he gave that extra 20%, because he really wanted to speak up for the place that has so many memories for him.

“I feel like Abbey Road Studios helped formulate the Beatles’ sound, not only because of the space they were recording in, but because there were instruments lying around.” That’s illustrated in the film when the senior McCartney notices a particular piano in the room and walks over to play “Lady madonna on it.” “Mrs. Mills [a novelty artist of the ’60s] was this famous pianist who did all these sort of happy party tunes, and she had this upright piano. The instruments would just be lying around Abby Road, which is true to this day… I mean, it really influenced Beatles music, and Pink Floyd, the same, because of new technology and new machines as well as instruments lying around that ended up making their way into the recordings because they happened to be in the studio. Not because they were like, ‘Let’s get an upright piano in today. Let’s rent one in, and then we’ll do this’ — it was just part of the furniture.”

Elton John didn’t record his most famous albums there, but recalls his time as a studio musician, playing piano on hits like “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother.” (In the end credits, he gets on a call with Sir Paul to tell how he ran into him in the studio in the ’60s and it was the greatest moment in his life to that point.) Jimmy Page also discusses being a session guitarist at Abbey Road as a teenager, and his astonishment at being almost in the front row playing on the “Goldfinger” session and watching Shirley Bassey belting until she literally collapsed.

Starr is also on his game as he recalls the White Album’s “Yer Blues” being one of his favorite things the Beatles ever recorded, not because it took advantage of the studio’s vastly developing technology, but rather the opposite: the group retreated to a storage area to get grittier. He also talks about the initial very bad idea of having “A Day in the Life” end with a choral hum, and the much better one they arrived at of ending it with multiple pianos playing the same chord. “That section [about ‘A Day in the Life’] is one of my favorite parts,” the filmmaker says. “But it was quite emotional when he said that about ‘Yer Blues.’ l think being able to interview him in Abbey Road was good because you do get a feeling when you walk into the space of coming home. It holds a lot of memories because they haven’t knocked down walls and changed it.”

How much has it been altered? “You know, they’ve built a lot of smaller spaces to be more practical, for more people to be able to visit that maybe wouldn’t be able to afford a big recording studio,” McCartney says. “But Studio 1 and Studio 2 have been really kept essentially as they were. The acoustics — why mess with something if it’s so great? Studio 3 has always been updated, but 1 and 2 have always been kept. So you get a feeling of modernity and history. And there’s a great canteen,” she adds, “which is fun.”

The only note of ominousness in the documentary comes when the studio comes on hard times, facing competition from far leaner operations in London, and the building is sold, with much of the contents sold off. But not Mrs. Mills’ piano, obviously — so how much really got kept? McCartney explains: “There’s a guy called Lester Smith who’s in the documentary. And there were times where people would be like, ‘We need to get rid of some of this stuff’ and sell it, because physically, how much space do you have at the studio? They kept as much as they could. But Lester is famous at Abbey Road because when he heard things were maybe in danger (of being gotten rid of), he would hide them away and then bring them back when it was safe for them to come back. So still to this day, people will be like, ‘Oh, I wish we still had one of those microphones,’ and he’ll go away and be like, ‘Oh, I just happened to find one here.’ So it’s full of great characters that work there who have that great passion.”

Mary McCartney in Telluride
Mary McCartney in Telluride

Classical music fans will be pleased that McCartney does not stint on that aspect of the studio’s history. “Once I got my head into the fact that I am doing this documentary, I became obsessed with it, and then it became this journey of learning so much. Because I didn’t realize it had been open for 90 years” — prior to that, it had been a nine-bedroom house — “and I didn’t realize all the classical connections.” She was, however, aware of a classical performer who was big in the U.K. in the ’60s, and who gets a good chunk of screen time, the glamorously youthful cellist Jacqueline Du Pre. The crossover musician’s story is both inspiring and tragic and you want to see more. “I was saying that last night — I was like, we need to do a whole documentary about Jacqueline,” McCartney says.

Kate Bush makes a rare modern appearance in the documentary, albeit audio-only. “It’s amazing having Kate in there because she produced her third album there, directed her video in there… I kind of made contact with her. I know she doesn’t do interviews, but I know she feels real affection for Abbey Road, so over time she kindly agreed to do an audio piece that she wrote and sent to me. Just having her voice talking about the space is pretty special as well.”

Someone else who makes a rare appearance: Mary McCartney. She primarily appears at the beginning of the film, to establish having grown up somewhat within its walls as Wings recorded there, then recedes for most of the remainder.

“One reason I kind of was like, ‘Oh, I do need to do it,’ was when I found that baby picture” of herself in the studio from the early ’70s. “Then I’d seen a biography of the history of the place, and I saw this picture of my mom leading the pony” — named Jet “across the crossing. And I was like, that is so my mom. She was so obsessed with animals and treated them like individuals. That image stayed in my mind. But it was actually my editor’s idea, when we were trying to figure out how to start it. And he’s like, ‘Look, I want you to be open to this. I know you don’t really want to be in it.’ And then I was like, ‘You know what? You are right.’ When we did, it felt like it brought more emotion to it, maybe, or connected me to the story more.”

But McCartney didn’t just get dragged to Abbey Road as a child — she’s returned often as an adult and knew much of the staff, even attending anniversary parties for longtime head Ken Townshend before he retired.

The Telluride reception was gratifying: “I’ve never watched it with an audience until yesterday. You work so hard on something and you’re like, how is it gonna be received? But the audience particularly reacted to the Shirley Bassey/Jimmy Page scene, because it’s so dramatic and she’s so brilliant and dramatic,” McCartney says proudly.

She hopes to do more documentaries. “I’m glad that John convinced me and I didn’t say no. I’ve learned to hold onto opportunities when you are offered them. Doing photography, you can be a lot more solitary. Directing this, I found I really do like working in teams as well. I’m glad,” she says, “that I had a word with myself.”

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