A marquee series in PBS’s fall season has all the hallmarks of a hit: interviews with high-profile musical artists, a production team with a top-notch pedigree, broad demographic appeal and a unique perspective on the evolution of popular music.
Soundbreaking: Stories from the Cutting Edge of Recorded Music also has a long and complicated history that involves a dispute between brothers over ownership, a conflict that boiled over into lawsuits in two different countries. Before the legal battle was over, there were accusations of forged documents, stolen master tapes and a false arrest.
Those most closely associated with the series have little to say about its origins. Executive Producer David Langstaff and filmmaker Jeff Dupre both declined to answer specific questions about the history of the series. PBS chief program exec Beth Hoppe demurred as well because, she said, she was not involved with the production when the lawsuits were filed.
Soundbreaking is an impressive documentary series, culled from interviews with more than 150 musical artists and producers. It bears the imprimatur of Sir George Martin, the legendary producer of the Beatles, who, according to all sides, embraced the idea of a show that lifts the curtain on the role of the record producer and explains the technological advances that made popular music what it is today.
Langstaff, a former c.e.o. of a security consulting firm and a moderator of values-based leadership seminars, said his family had connections to Martin. His uncle, a concert baritone, began his recording career with the celebrated producer before Martin began working with the Beatles. Soundbreaking, Langstaff said, “came out of a conversation with George a number of years ago.”
Dupre, a partner in the production company Show of Force, was not involved at that stage. He said the documentary was conceived when “David was struck by a conversation he had with George where George said that no one’s ever properly told the story of recorded music and the role of technology.”
But that’s not how Martin himself remembered it. The legendary producer, who died in March at age 90, told Billboard magazine in 2008 that he was approached with the idea for the series by David Langstaff’s brother, Maxim, and Maxim’s wife, Michele.
“It was Max Langstaff and Michele who came to me and spoke about this,” Martin said. “They had seen my career and realized my career had filled up, really, half the history of recording.” David Langstaff also credited Maxim for the idea in a court document filed in September 2010.
Maxim and Michele Langstaff co-founded and co-owned The Wildheart Group, now based in Santa Monica, Calif. Maxim, who also uses the nickname “Max,” is an experienced producer of music documentaries: After his Emmy- and Grammy-nominated work for John Denver’s The Wildlife Concert, produced in 1995, he spent 12 years working with Martin on The Making of Sergeant Pepper.
In February 2008, PBS announced that it had greenlit Wildheart’s series, which was titled On Record: The Soundtrack of Our Lives and slated to premiere in fall 2010. John Wilson, PBS’s chief television programmer at the time, said in a press release that the music documentary had the potential to be “one of those season-defining tentpole series.” Wilson left PBS in 2013 and is currently an executive at AARP.
Wilson did not respond to interview requests, but court documents reveal he was deposed in one case. He testified that Maxim quarreled with PBS when its programmers questioned the quality of his work in progress.
Premature publicity blitz
When PBS announced its commitment to the series in early 2008, Maxim had conducted interviews or collected rare archival footage with the Beatles, Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, Quincy Jones, Elton John, B.B. King, Stevie Wonder, John Denver, Jay-Z, Pete Seeger, Frank Sinatra, Woody Guthrie and more than 100 other musical artists.
Though it was two years from its scheduled airdate, PBS promoted the series during the 2008 Television Critics Association Summer Press Tour. Representing On Record were Maxim, Martin and Phil Quartararo, a veteran of the recording industry who had been president of Warner Bros. Music and EMI Music Marketing. Quartararo served as an executive producer of the project at Wildheart.
After that, On Record and the production team behind it at Wildheart seem to have never again been mentioned publicly by PBS. Neither Maxim nor Michele Langstaff receive producer credits for their early roles in the series that became Soundbreaking: Stories from the Cutting Edge of Recorded Music. No one involved with the show can or would discuss the reasons why in detail, but a trail of legal complaints filed in three different courts provides clues.
During the time Maxim and Michele worked on the production, David Langstaff created a company, Higher Ground, to raise money for the series. David described it as “just a company put together to make this thing go, to make it happen. …We’ve got a number of folks involved, but it’s a private company. We don’t publicize the number of funders or investors or budgets or things like that.”
However, with the Great Recession in full swing, fundraising had become more difficult.
Recalls Quartararo: “It seems like there was a point where David either could not raise any more money or would not raise any more money and really put a lot of heat on his brother to exit the project.”
David Langstaff said the recession required a pause in production. “The work needed to stop for a while in the 2009 period with the financial crisis in this country and around the world.”
Tight finances may have indeed played a role in a lawsuit filed by business consultant Daniel Ho, who claimed he was owed $175,000 for creating a business plan and securing financial backing for the project, including $3 million from PBS. The suit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York in July 2010, was settled in 2012 with each party bearing its own expenses.
There were other forces at work, though. From the fall of 2008 until the spring of 2010, while Maxim and Michele toiled over postproduction work, they faced growing skepticism by David, PBS and even Martin that they would complete the series on time and to PBS’s standards.
The details were spelled out in a claim filed by Maxim and Michele in D.C. Superior Court in July 2010 and in a counterclaim filed by Higher Ground two months later. Maxim sued to reclaim the rights to the project; David’s Higher Ground countered that his company owned the rights and described why he had moved the production from Wildheart to Show of Force.
Higher Ground’s counterclaim said that, by late summer 2008, George Martin was worried about the production. “I am very concerned that the series seems to have no focus,” he wrote Maxim. “You have a good team but they are obviously not happy with the way things are going. I am sorry that it has been necessary to write this.”
In September 2008, director Alan Benson resigned. Court documents reveal high turnover on the staff — including departures by three post-production supervisors within a year — through 2009.
In June 2009, Martin requested a meeting with David Langstaff in London. The counterclaim summarized their subsequent conversation: Martin relayed criticism expressed by Ringo Starr about Max’s interview with him and described “challenges in getting fellow Beatle Sir Paul McCartney to commit to the project based on difficulties that arose following a meeting between McCartney and Max.”
David wrote to Martin in March 2010: “I find myself in the extremely unfortunate situation of wanting to support my brother and the remarkable vision he has brought to this project, yet knowing I have a fiduciary obligation to many other parties.”
Replied Martin: “I feel for Max, too, even though he has brought this on himself. I think the whole thing became too personal an odyssey for him and we have noticed a distinct change in him since the project began.”
Meanwhile, PBS’s Wilson had begun questioning whether the production had gone off-track. He received assurances from Maxim by email in April 2010 that “the quality of the material and the standards of our production will be competitive with the finest content PBS has ever broadcast.”
Wilson was not convinced. In the only deposition included in Higher Ground’s counterclaim, Wilson said PBS decided not to feature the series at its 2010 annual meeting. “[T]here was and is a serious concern that the program has no discernable story arc and will not be acceptable to PBS or ready for broadcast in fall 2011 under the revised delivery schedule. … In addition, Max’s attitude toward PBS and his response to constructive criticism … has led me to be greatly concerned about the viability of the program.”
Higher Ground board notified investors in April 2010 that turmoil on the staff had made it impossible to raise the money required. “The board is therefore freezing the funds until Max and Michele prove a viable alternative to meet the PBS requirements.”
In his July 2010 complaint to the Superior Court, Maxim claimed that David was trying to steal the project from him after Wildheart had spent eight years and hundreds of thousands of dollars interviewing more than 130 recording artists. Maxim said Higher Ground changed the locks on the Toronto production office and sold his personal property, including furniture and artwork, on Craigslist.
The D.C. Superior Court lawsuit sprouted new motions and countersuits until it was dismissed nearly two years later, in June 2012. Maxim told Current that the settlement, which included payment of his legal fees, required that he not discuss any matters related to the project.
Prior to Current’s request for an interview, Maxim said, he did not know that Soundbreaking had been scheduled for broadcast.
Detective search for master tapes
Before Maxim took his case to U.S. courts, an earlier lawsuit filed in Canada was moving toward a hearing.
In the case, heard in Ontario’s Superior Court of Justice in July 2010, plaintiffs including David and his associates at Higher Ground filed what was essentially a motion to get control over the master tapes until the legal dispute was resolved.
The complaint cited surveillance evidence from May 2010 that showed Maxim removing master tapes from the postproduction office.
Higher Ground had hired a detective to find out where the tapes were, according to documents filed in the U.S. Superior Court case, and then asked Toronto police to investigate whether Maxim was taking property owned by the production in violation of Canadian law.
Documents filed for Maxim in the D.C. Supreme Court lawsuit claim that Higher Ground had him arrested. He was led away in handcuffs and spent seven hours in custody before being released, but no charges were filed.
The Canadian judge ruled against David Langstaff and Higher Ground. In her decision, issued six days after the hearing, Justice Beth Allen said she doubted the authenticity of documents submitted as evidence by the plaintiffs: She did not believe that Maxim had signed agreements assigning ownership of the tapes to Higher Ground.
During the hearing, Maxim said he never would have signed the agreements, and the judge was persuaded by his testimony.
In her ruling, Allen wrote that the agreements were written and signed by an associate of Higher Ground who was providing counsel to Wildheart Entertainment at the same time.
“The problem with that state of affairs is obvious,” the judge said.
Before 2010 ended — and long before the settlement was filed with the U.S. Superior Court — legal documents show that David Langstaff transferred the job of making the series to Show of Force, a company owned by Dupre and his partner, documentary filmmaker and producer Maro Chermayeff. Over two years, the new production team filmed new footage at Abbey Road Studios in London and conducted additional interviews to mix with the approximately 600 hours of footage that Wildheart had compiled.
Dupre, whose previous work for PBS includes the six-hour documentary Circus and the 10-hour documentary Carrier, describes Soundbreaking as his most ambitious project “because there were so many moving parts.”
As for the legal battle that preceded Show of Force’s involvement and the lack of credit for Maxim, Michelle and Wildheart, Dupre referred those questions to David.
“This began 10 years ago and, as is often the case with large and ambitious projects, there’s lots of twists and turns along the way,” Dupre said. “Here we are at the finish line.”
According to Quartararo, who had been e.p. of On Record, Maxim expressed confidence during the legal wrangling that he would ultimately prevail in court, but he simply could not afford to pursue the matter. He’d had no choice but to settle. “I’m sure that’s the reason,” Quartararo said. “It was a labor of love.”
PBS’s Hoppe, who joined the programming division in 2011 as a deputy to Wilson, was aware of the lawsuits surrounding Soundbreaking, she said, including the U.S. Superior Court case that was dismissed in June 2012. But she didn’t deal directly with the legal issues. She was promoted to chief programmer in December 2012, six months after the dismissal. “[I]t was before my time,” she said.
Her first meeting related to Soundbreaking was with Show of Force’s Dupre and Chermayeff, after the dismissal. At that point, Show of Force was “well underway and partnered with Higher Ground,” she said.
“I’m very, very proud of the series and excited to make it a big event for the fall,” Hoppe said. Completing the production “may have taken some time, but we’re glad it’s making it to air now.”
‘Art event’ in wide release
Soundbreaking is to be broadcast Nov. 14–23. The scheduling strategy of debuting each episode at 10 p.m. on the eight weekdays preceding Thanksgiving Day is a first for PBS, Hoppe said. “We see it as a kind of art event.”
PBS’s investment of $3 million in the music documentary gives it a back-end share of net revenue from the series, elements derived from it and series-related merchandise, both domestically and worldwide, according to Hoppe. The agreement includes revenue from exploitation of all rights —television, subscription video-on-demand and home entertainment.
For its distribution rights, Higher Ground has contracted with Athena, a division of RLJ Entertainment, Inc., for electronic sell-through, SVOD and home video rights. DVD sets will be available Nov. 29. There also will be a companion book.
Viewers who miss the broadcast premiere will have many options for watching it on-demand. The day after each episode airs, it will be offered for purchase on iTunes, Amazon Video, Vudu, Google Play, Microsoft Movies & TV and Sony Interactive Entertainment. PBS will stream episodes on pbs.org, but the windowing strategy hasn’t been finalized.
Though not many viewers will pay close attention to the credits, those who do won’t see acknowledgment of Maxim or Michele Langstaff. Quartararo described the omission of their names as “a misrepresentation.”
“Max and Michele originated the idea, originated the project, originated the concept,” he said. “They had the real flavor of what the show would be, what it should look like, what it should sound like, and everybody rallied behind that spirit, including George Martin.”