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Filmmakers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick discuss their new PBS documentary series ‘The Vietnam War’ and the importance of remembering the war at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
USA TODAY

War is ugly. A horrific mix of hate and hurt, its signature sights — crimson blood on anguished faces, burnt earth spitting black smoke, lethal fireworks in starry skies — pierce human memory like shrapnel through flesh.

Before it’s seen, however, war is heard. A cacophony of sputtering bullets, bellicose bombs, roaring jet engines and desperate bellows, its soundtrack is distinct and unsettling.

On the battlefield, the Vietnam War was just as shrill as the wars that came before it. Thanks to rock ’n’ roll, however, it also had a sound all its own — at times joyful, sad, angry, hopeful, woeful, inspiring, fearful and forgiving. Sometimes—in The Beatles’ 1970 song Let It Be, for example — even peaceful.

“Music is the fastest art form there is. Two notes, and you feel something,” says documentarian Ken Burns, whose latest film series with partner Lynn Novick, The Vietnam War, premieres Sept. 17 on PBS. Music plays a lead role.

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Official trailer for the new PBS documentary series, ‘The Vietnam War’ a film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick.
Florentine Films

“The music of the time is a character in the film,” says Novick, who co-directed The Vietnam War with Burns. “It helps you understand the experience of people living through the Vietnam War better than almost anything else.”

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In truth, music isn’t one character in the film; it’s three: popular music from the period, an original score by Academy Award-winning composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, and interpretations of traditional Vietnamese melodies arranged and recorded by Grammy Award-winning cellist Yo-Yo Ma and The Silk Road Ensemble. Each adds something special to the 10-part series, the sounds of which make Vietnam reverberate in America’s eardrums just as loudly today as it did 50 years ago.

Licensed to Rock

Retired Air Force general Merrill McPeak opens The Vietnam War’s eighth episode with commentary on music’s role in the cultural revolution coinciding with the war.

“The late ’60s were a kind of confluence of several rivulets,” says…