Like many of their fellow early stars of rock ‘n’ roll, the prime of the Everly Brothers’ career was relatively brief but incredibly influential. As beloved as country-flavored hits like “Bye Bye Love,” “Wake Up Little Susie” and “Cathy’s Clown” continue to be, even more striking is the brothers’ uncanny “blood harmony” — that inimitable intertwining of voices unique to close relatives.
No surprise, then, that the new documentary The Everly Brothers: Harmonies From Heaven takes its title from the distinctive, spine-tingling melding of Don and Phil Everly’s voices. Originally airing on BBC Four earlier this year, the hour-long program has now been made more widely available to fans by Eagle Rock Entertainment on 2-disc DVD, DVD+Blu-Ray, and digital download.
Some of Harmonies From Heaven’s most revealing elements concern the brothers’ pre-fame days. Their father, Ike Everly, was a guitar player in his own right, credited by country legend Merle Travis as an influence on his novel fingerpicking style. Ike introduced his sons to the music business at an early age; in the late ’40s and early ’50s, they recorded the Everly Family Radio Show at Iowa radio station KMA before school each morning, billed as “little Donnie and baby-boy Phil.”
Shortly after Phil graduated high school in 1957, the teenage Everlys found superstardom with “Bye Bye Love,” written by the married songwriting team of Felice and Boudleaux Bryant. The documentary follows the Everlys’ and Bryants’ collaboration on an impressive string of classics that followed, including “Wake Up Little Susie,” “All I Have to Do is Dream,” “Bird Dog,” “Problems,” “Take a Message to Mary,” and “Love Hurts.” The brothers were also talented songwriters on their own, penning “When Will I Be Loved,” “(Till) I Kissed You,” “So Sad (To Watch Good Love Go Bad),” “Gone, Gone, Gone,” and the biggest hit of their career, “Cathy’s Clown.”
After a dispute with their manager/publisher Wesley Rose in 1961, however, the Everly Brothers were barred from recording songs by the Bryants or even themselves, as they were still under contract to Acuff-Rose Music as songwriters. The duo’s popularity dropped off steeply soon afterward, and the British Invasion finished them off in the America — despite the fact that bands like the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and the Hollies credited the Everly Brothers for their vocal harmonies and guitar style.
Harmonies From Heaven frames 1962’s “Crying in the Rain,” co-written by Carole King, as the duo’s swan song. In reality, they’d have another Top 10 hit later that year (“That’s Old Fashioned”) and reach the US Top 40 twice more over the next few years. Even as the Everlys found themselves fading out of fashion in the US, however, they would continue making hits and drawing crowds in the UK, Canada, and Australia for the rest of the decade.
The bulk of Harmonies From Heaven focuses on the Everly Brothers’ most commercially successful period, 1957 to 1962. Despite the narrow timespan, however, the documentary avoids going much in depth. Tangents on topics like the Nashville scene and the Grand Ole Opry provide some good background for newcomers, but at the expense of the Everly Brothers themselves.
The documentary features a wide selection of the Everlys’ vintage performances but trims the footage down to bite-sized chunks that cut off or fade into the background almost as soon as they start.
The program features a new interview with surviving brother Don Everly, as well as great archival interviews with the late Phil Everly and Felice Bryant, all of which give the documentary some much-needed color and context. But for each informative interviewee — typically someone like Dave Edmunds or Del Bryant, who worked with the brothers and knew them personally — Harmonies From Heaven includes twice as many talking heads reciting the same tired tropes that every fan of mid-century pop has heard a trillion times before: rock ‘n’ roll is the marriage of country and R&B, the postwar baby boom sparked the growth of youth culture in the ’60s, etc, etc.
Add in the fact that the program acts as though the Everlys more or less disappeared after 1962 — despite the fact that they continued to record often terrific material for more than a decade afterward, until their initial breakup in 1973 — and the Everly Brothers sometimes seem overlooked by their own documentary.
Which brings us to the larger problem of Harmonies From Heaven: who is this for? Anyone with a more than passing familiarity with the Everly Brothers will already know the bulk of the duo’s story and won’t need to be swayed by the effusive praise of random commentators. Nor does the documentary work particularly well as an introduction; the Everlys’ music is reduced to short snippets, often buried in the background while an interviewee chats over the top.
The inclusion of current UK folk-popper Jake Bugg bleating through a few lines of “Cathy’s Clown” seems like an attempt to appeal to the Youth of Today, but how many youngsters would also be enticed by Art Garfunkel waxing poetic on the Everlys’ natural ability to harmonize in thirds? (Maybe young Simon & Garfunkel fans, but they would already know that the duo started out as essentially an Everly Brothers tribute act.)
Thankfully, the DVD includes a half-hour of bonus interviews more insightful than the bland platitudes of the documentary proper. These cut the chaff in favor of the people, famous and not, who actually knew the Everlys and their music.
Graham Nash delves into the creation of the 1966 album Two Yanks in England, in which the Hollies wrote eight songs for the Everlys and acted as their backing band. Waddy Wachtel and Albert Lee, both of whom also performed with the brothers, expound on the Everlys’ guitar style, while personal friend Bill Harlan reminisces about the early days.
The DVD extras also include Jake Bugg singing “Cathy’s Clown” and “Crying in the Rain,” which makes one yearn for full-length clips of the Everlys themselves performing those (or any) songs.
Thankfully, the second disc includes the 48-minute long program Live from Chequers Nightclub, Sydney, filmed for Australian TV in 1968. Despite having been recorded the same year as the standout (but underheard) album Roots, the setlist is almost all oldies, often sped up (“Wake Up Little Susie,” “Bird Dog”), slowed down (“All I Have to Do is Dream”), or played for comedy (“So Sad”).
The rough recording quality is to be expected of a video program from the era, but the show itself is a corker, especially as Harmonies From Heaven would have it that the Everlys had vanished into the ether by this point. The brothers’ harmonies are just as impeccable and unwavering as on their records, and they come across as polished entertainers without ever seeming stiff or slick.
As a bonus, the set includes a heaping dose of Don’s droll, sometimes-pointed stage banter, often making Phil the butt of his jokes. Whether this is all in good fun or a glimpse into the brothers’ legendary animosity is in the eye of the beholder.
It’s hard to fault a well-meaning documentary like Harmonies From Heaven for aspiring to the noble task of bringing greater attention to the Everly Brothers. As truncated as the clips it includes are, it’s still a thrill to watch the brothers perform, and it’s a pleasure to see Don Everly, still in fighting form, contribute an honest glimpse backwards.
As lightweight as the actual Harmonies From Heaven program is, the DVD set is still worth picking up for the Chequers performance and bonus interviews. (Just think of the documentary as the DVD extra.) Harmonies from Heaven may not be the definitive document of the Everly Brothers’ career, but it’s a pleasant reminder to break out their records (or fall into a YouTube rabbit hole) and just listen.
Get your copy of The Everly Brothers: Harmonies From Heaven on DVD and Blu-ray via Amazon.