The new BBC-distributed documentary offers insight into the creative genius of rock’s most unassuming legend.
Mr. Blue Sky: The Story of Jeff Lynne and ELO, an enlightening and entertaining new BBC documentary, opens with ringing endorsements from a number of highly noteworthy artists. The first voice we hear belongs to none other than Paul McCartney, who proclaims Jeff Lynne, “funny, shy, ever-so-clever, great musician…and a total twat.” In quick succession, McCartney is followed by Ringo Starr, Tom Petty, Dhani Harrison, and Joe Walsh. This is only a partial list of the distinguished artists with whom Lynne has collaborated. I had a chance to briefly speak with Mr. Lynne directly about the documentary. I asked him how filmmaker Martyn Atkins came to direct the project.
“It’s just something that’s been around for quite a while,” Lynne explained, “And it just suddenly came to be. The next thing I knew, he was living in my studio!”
Considering the level of success Jeff Lynne has achieved as a songwriter, recording artist, performer, and producer, it’s a mystery why it has taken so long for a film like this to be made. “I’m glad you’re doing this movie,” Petty tells Atkins early on, “because somebody should.” Though he may not quite be a household name, Lynne’s endless string of hit singles with Electric Light Orchestra throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s has been the soundtrack to countless music fans’ lives. Atkins tells Lynne’s story in an unforced, casual manner, entirely appropriate for a member of rock history’s most ego-free supergroup, The Traveling Wilburys.
We are allowed into Lynne’s home studio numerous times to see and hear him working on his recently released albums, Long Wave (a collection of non-originals) and Mr. Blue Sky: The Very Best of Electric Light Orchestra (a collection of new re-recordings of ELO classics). The glimpses of the artist at work are tantalizing, to say the least. Lynne’s voice has lost nothing over the years—if anything, it’s only become more nuanced and expressive. I wondered if we were seeing the new albums’ actual recording sessions.
“No, I was just showing how it was done,” Lynne admitted, “I was singing live, but I’d already done it once and I was just double-tracking it, things like that.”
A perfect example of Atkins’ directorial approach is the moment where a phone rings off-screen during Lynne’s recollection of the Wilburys’ formation. Grumbling good-naturedly, Lynne gets up to attend to the nuisance. It’s a perfectly irreverent moment, the kind that doesn’t often make the final cut of a documentary.
“Yeah, it’s funny,” Lynne commented, “It’s silly to leave those things in, but I think that’s what makes the film good.”
What emerges throughout Mr. Blue Sky is the portrait of a humble, low-key rock legend. His songwriting collaborations with Tom Petty (“Free Fallin’,” for one prime example) and Roy Orbison (“You Got It”) receive due discussion. Lynne warmly remembers his friendship and working relationship with the late singer-songwriter Del Shannon. Both McCartney and Starr weigh in with stories of The Beatles’ reunion sessions (“Free as a Bird,” “Real Love”), which Lynne produced.
Unlike the recent Martin Scorsese-directed documentary Living in the Material World, we get a real sense of Lynne’s longtime partnership with George Harrison. Whereas Scorsese’s Harrison documentary all but ignored their close friendship and professional accomplishments (such as Harrison’s 1987 Lynne-produced smash Cloud Nine), Atkins includes warm remembrances by Harrison’s widow Olivia and son Dhani. I couldn’t help but share with Mr. Lynne my opinion that Scorsese, despite his amply demonstrated skill as a documentarian, gave their relationship short-shrift.
“Well, George and I had a great friendship for about 12 years or so. And yeah, that was weird in that other film, the film about George. But not to worry, you know, I got to pay tribute to him in my film, which was great,” said Lynne.
Ultimately, Mr. Blue Sky is not a laundry list chronicling Billboardstatistics and record sales (though it could’ve been—just look over a list of ELO hits, including “Don’t Bring Me Down,” “Evil Woman,” “Strange Magic” and dozens more). Instead, it’s an inside look at the creative process and strong work ethic that drives rock music’s most unobtrusive superstar.
For more information about Mr. Blue Sky: The Story of Jeff Lynne and ELO, visit the BBC’s official website. The film has been airing in the U.S. on the Palladia network. Check their site for broadcast times.
A very special thanks to Jeff Lynne for his time. Please look for more of my interview with Mr. Lynne on The Morton Report, where he talks about his new albums, and more.