I grew up on the greatest hits of the Vietnam generation. But by the time I was discovering the Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, Bob Dylan and Neil Young for myself, I was listening to that music in a very different context from the one in which it was released. The soundtrack to the ’60s and ’70s can be used as a kind of lazy emotional shorthand. But in Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s “The Vietnam War,” which aired its finale on Sept. 28, that music became sharper and more vital for me.
Hearing an excerpt from Miles Davis’s “Sketches of Spain,” one of my favorite albums, play over a scene of John F. Kennedy’s inauguration was a reminder of just how fresh that moment felt in both jazz and politics. I’ve listened to the Byrds’ “Turn! Turn! Turn!” on cassettes, LPs and digitally, but never quite grasped the sense of progress — or chaos — the song was trying to capture until now. The Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black” plays over the end credits of the fifth episode, which set up the documentary’s exploration of the Tet Offensive, and makes the despair of the quagmire feel palpable and threatening. And sometimes, it was simply just fun to see Burns and Novick slipping a joke in there, like using Steppenwolf’s “Magic Carpet Ride” to score retired Air Force chief of staff Merrill McPeak’s memories of bombing the Ho Chi Minh trail.
I still don’t know how I feel about the choice of “Let It Be” as the final song in “The Vietnam War,” even though I’ve seen the last episode multiple times and had a number of conversations with Burns and Novick about it. It’s an undeniably beautiful piece of music, and there’s something lovely about hearing “Let It Be” over landscape shots of a revitalized, if not completely recovered, Vietnam. I asked Burns twice about the difference between putting Vietnam behind us, as Henry Kissinger suggests we do in a clip from an early sequence of the film, and letting the war be.
“‘Let It Be’ is one of the most beautiful pieces of music that is offering not the sense of forgetting it, but the ability to reconcile all the conflicting tugs of the information that have just been sort of been dumped on you over the last 18 hours,” Burns argued. “Facts and emotions and horrors and momentary humor and great emotion, and it’s possible to just say let it be and that’s not about forgetting. It’s about an ultimate reconciliation, which I hope is what we can do.”
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