Watch The True History Of The Traveling Wilburys, a Free Film Documenting the Making of the 1980s Super Group

“It real­ly had very lit­tle to do with com­bin­ing a bunch of famous peo­ple,” says Tom Pet­ty about the Trav­el­ing Wilburys. “It was a bunch of friends that just hap­pened to be real­ly good at mak­ing music.”

One of the most mod­est super­groups of the 20th cen­tu­ry, one that fate and chance threw togeth­er for a very brief peri­od, the Trav­el­ing Wilburys made music that sits out­side the usu­al his­to­ries of 1980s music, fea­tur­ing five men in dif­fer­ent states of their careers. Tom Pet­ty was about to have a come­back, George Har­ri­son had just had one, Jeff Lynne was no longer hav­ing chart hits as ELO, but he was shap­ing the sound of the late 1980s as a pro­duc­er, Roy Orbi­son was *about* to have a posthu­mous come­back, and Bob Dylan was…doing what­ev­er Dylan does—every album he put out in the ‘80s had an equal num­ber of detrac­tors and come­back claimants. Put it this way: the Trav­el­ing Wilburys didn’t feel like a nos­tal­gia act, and nei­ther did it feel like a mar­ket­ing idea. It was actu­al­ly light­ning in a bot­tle.

“It was George’s band,” Lynne says in the above mini doc­u­men­tary, but it wasn’t real­ly formed as one. It just sort of *evolved*.

As he explains ear­ly in the doc, Har­ri­son was hav­ing din­ner with Roy Orbi­son and Jeff Lynne and invit­ed them along to a stu­dio in Los Ange­les the next day. He had the han­ker­ing to make a tune, and they wound up using Bob Dylan’s home studio—the nor­mal­ly reclu­sive Dylan actu­al­ly picked up the phone on the first ring and gave the okay. And Harrison’s gui­tar was over at Tom Petty’s house, so he came along as well. The song they record­ed that day was “Han­dle with Care,” which fell togeth­er like mag­ic. (Dylan pro­vid­ed the title after look­ing over at a card­board box).

Har­ri­son sat on the song for a while, hav­ing no idea what to do with it. The only thing he could do, was to record nine more songs and call it an album. Which, once they had found time in everybody’s sched­ule, they did. The songs were record­ed at the home stu­dio of Dave Stew­art (of the Eury­th­mics) and final­ized back in Lon­don with Har­ri­son and Lynne. The group gave them­selves the assign­ment of one song writ­ten and record­ed per day. That the record isn’t a mish-mash of jam­ming, left­over ideas, and cov­ers, and instead has a legit­i­mate amount of clas­sic sin­gles and career-high­light moments is a tes­ta­ment to the friend­ship between the five (and drum­mer Jim Kelt­ner, who knew them all).

Friends indeed, but it doesn’t mean they weren’t also big fans of each oth­er. What’s cool to watch in the doc is how in awe they all seem: George is amazed by Bob’s cryp­tic scrawled lyrics and his abil­i­ty to nail a song on essen­tial­ly the first take. Tom Pet­ty is in awe of George’s demo­c­ra­t­ic ways with choos­ing who gets to sing one of the songs, regard­less of who wrote it—really, how do you fol­low Roy Orbison’s ver­sion of a song? But Tom Pet­ty still had a go.

The album main­tains that friend­ly vibe in the record­ing: micro­phones were mobile to catch music wher­ev­er it hap­pened. Jim Kelt­ner played rhythm on the inside of the kitchen’s refrig­er­a­tor. Songs were writ­ten in the kitchen. And after the work was done, the music would con­tin­ue. “A lot of ukule­les till dawn,” says Har­ri­son.

Roy Orbi­son only made it into the first music video off of the album, “Han­dle With Care.” He passed away just after the album went plat­inum in 1988, and appears as an emp­ty rock­ing chair on the next video, “The End of the Line.”

The four remain­ing Wilburys would reunite for one more album (jok­ing­ly titled Vol­ume 3 by prankster Har­ri­son), but the first album still sounds time­less, five friends just hav­ing a good time togeth­er.

The True His­to­ry Of The Trav­el­ing Wilburys will be added to our col­lec­tion of Free Doc­u­men­taries, a sub­set of our col­lec­tion, 4,000+ Free Movies Online: Great Clas­sics, Indies, Noir, West­erns, Doc­u­men­taries & More.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

George Har­ri­son Wrote His Last Let­ter to Austin Pow­ers Cre­ator Mike Myers, Ask­ing for a Mini Me Doll (2001)

Sad 7‑Foot Tall Clown Sings “Pin­ball Wiz­ard” in the Style of John­ny Cash, and Oth­er Hits by Roy Orbi­son, Cheap Trick & More

The Sto­ry of WHER, America’s Pio­neer­ing, First All-Woman Radio Sta­tion (1955)

Ted Mills is a free­lance writer on the arts who cur­rent­ly hosts the Notes from the Shed pod­cast and is the pro­duc­er of KCR­W’s Curi­ous Coast. You can also fol­low him on Twit­ter at @tedmills, and/or watch his films here.

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Comments (8)
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  • WW says:

    I’d argue that Orbi­son made his come­back just as he was about to die, and died at his sec­ond-peak. Remem­ber, his songs were just fea­tured in mul­ti­ple David Lynch films, he had that wild­ly-pop­u­lar Black & White Con­cert, where he was backed by oth­er super­stars, and his song “You Got It” and his album, “Mys­tery Girl”, were at the top-of-the-charts when he sud­den­ly ascend­ed into Rock & Roll Heav­en. Good for Roy, he was a nation­al-trea­sure!

  • Christopher says:

    Hi, good arti­cle over all but you got a major fact wrong about Roy Orbi­son and his involve­ment in the first Wilbury album. He was fea­tured on almost every sin­gle track on the album and well as a stand alone song, above and being the tit­u­lar Han­dle With Care. His pres­ence was huge, and I don’t know how you couldn’t know that unless you haven’t actu­al­ly lis­tened to the record you’re talk­ing about. Very strange.

  • Randy J Bruso says:

    I caught that too. But what do I know, I’m an old rock and roll ani­mal with one foot in the grave. I record­ed this doc on DVD from the Sun­dance chan­nel decades ago. Still have it and coin­ci­den­tal­ly just watched it again.

  • Lee Newhart says:

    For myself, this group of incred­i­ble guys will always be a part of my music world. All of them leg­ends, and sad­ly 3 are gone. When TW was active­ly record­ing and tour­ing, I was not famil­iar with them. I’m embar­rassed about that, although I was always lis­ten­ing to all of them indi­vid­u­al­ly. I just was not aware of the group itself. I love the music now and will always!

  • CassieJK says:

    They didn’t say that Orbi­son wasn’t involved with every track on the album. Only that he was in one music video. Which is absolute­ly true.

  • Ted Mills says:

    Orig­i­nal writer here: yes, that was an unfor­tu­nate typo on my part, writ­ing “song” instead of “music video”. I was Run­ning Scared from the inter­net com­ments at first, and was Cry­ing over it , but now we’ve fixed the error. I apol­o­gize and ask for [Pret­ty Woman riff} Mer­cy!!!

  • Michael Tibis says:

    I’m not an IT guy. Where can I watch the doc­u­men­tary of the Wilburys?

  • Barbara Curran says:

    If you read the artical,it said he only made it into the first Music Video off the first album

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