Early rock pioneers the Everly Brothers set the standard for impeccable harmonies, and wowed audiences with their special blend of rock, country, and R&B. The duo gets their just due in the BBC documentary The Everly Brothers: Harmonies from Heaven, newly released on DVD and Blu-ray. Featuring interviews with surviving Everly brother Don, Keith Richards, Art Garfunkel, Albert Lee, Dave Edmunds, and Graham Nash, the film is a thoroughly fascinating look at an underrated family act.
Harmonies from Heaven follows Don and Phil from their early years as singers with the Everly Family, a group comprised of the brothers and their parents Ike and Margaret. After finishing high school, Don and Phil continued as a duo, playing gigs in Knoxville, Tennessee. Legendary artist and family friend Chet Atkins caught the act and helped them sign with Capitol Records. After relocating to Nashville, the brothers released a single that failed to chart; the company subsequently dropped them. Despite this initial setback, they found success as songwriters, joining Acuff-Rose publishing. Even more importantly, they met the songwriting team Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, who ended up penning Don and Phil’s breakthrough hit: 1957’s “Bye Bye Love.” The Bryants continued their collaboration with the brothers, scoring hits with classics such as "Wake Up Little Susie", "All I Have to Do Is Dream", "Bird Dog", and “Problems.” Don Everly came into his own as a composer, penning the single “(Till) I Kissed You.”
Their hitmaking streak ran through 1962, when they released their final top ten single “Crying in the Rain.” That year also marked another turning point: the brothers were drafted into the Marine Corps. After they finished active duty, they attempted to resume their careers but found themselves eclipsed by the British Invasion. Artists like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones were directly influenced by the Everly Brothers; now they were replacing their idols on the charts. As music journalist Anthony DeCurtis states in Harmonies from Heaven, “The Everly Brothers didn’t lose talent, but lost zeitgeist.” Another issue became the brothers’ increasingly volatile partnership; while their personal differences seemed to work for them in the past, tensions became too great. During a 1973 concert, Phil smashed his guitar and walked offstage, leaving Don to complete the show alone. For ten years the brothers never spoke; they finally reunited in 1983, touring with Simon and Garfunkel from 2003-2004 and occasionally recording. The Everly Brothers act came to an end in 2014, when Phil Everly died of pulmonary disease.
Much of the documentary focuses on the Everly Brothers’ unique contributions to rock and roll. Don receives accolades as a guitarist, with Richards proclaiming him one of the best acoustic rhythm guitarists he had ever heard. Don cites Bo Diddley as a major influence on his playing in “Bye Bye Love,” and demonstrates how he used all downstrokes in the beginning to “Wake Up Little Susie.” They rank among the first family groups to sing in harmony, and among the earliest crossover artists to reach the pop, country, and R&B charts. Garfunkel describes how he and Paul Simon closely patterned their early songs after the Everly Brothers’ material. The brothers are even credited with saving the Warner Brothers record company; when they moved to the label, they released the biggest hit of their career, “Cathy’s Clown.” It sold well internationally, boosting the then-fledgling label’s profile.
Phil Everly is well represented in the documentary, with footage from a 2010 interview sprinkled throughout the program. Don appears in a reflective mood, now appreciative of his contributions to early rock and roll. In addition to these interviews, the often rare footage of the brothers executing their peerless harmonies is the star of the show. As one interviewee states, the Everly Brothers seemed less like two people than one person with two heads singing in perfect synchronization, and watching them perform “AIl I Have to Do Is Dream” confirms that notion. Longtime fans will appreciate Harmonies from Heaven, but those largely unfamiliar with the Every Brothers will find the documentary riveting in terms of their vast contributions to modern music. Anyone who wants to learn about rock’s formative years should view this well-crafted program.
The home video release of The Everly Brothers: Harmonies from Heaven also includes a rare performance from 1968. Filmed for Australian television, the concert took place at Sydney’s Chequers Nightclub in front of a small audience. The sound and picture quality are not optimal, with sloppy edits and awkward pauses throughout (presumably where commercials were originally inserted). In addition, the brothers seem somewhat tense, with Phil constantly cracking jokes as Don stands in the background practically rolling his eyes. Yet their flawless harmonies save the day, with the duo singing in one microphone in their typical perfect synchronization. Highlights include impeccable renditions of “Walk Right Back,” “All I Have to Do Is Dream,” “Let It Be Me,” and “Kentucky” (a song the brothers originally performed with their parents).