Jimi Hendrix on film

Rock Docs spotlight: “Woodstock” (1970)

The Woodstock Music and Art Fair, held fifty years ago this month in upstate New York, was such a monumental event that there is little that hasn’t been said about it at this late date. Each significant anniversary has seen the media gorging on remembrances, reissues and reponderings of history’s most famous rock music festival and its relevance to the social sea change it brought on, or at least reflected. But still, now 50 years later, they have nothing over Michael Wadleigh’s sprawling, indispensable filmed record—a project that almost never got off the ground. Festival promoters Michael Lang and Artie Kornfeld initially had no luck finding an investor to fund a camera crew to cover an event that no one thought would draw more than fifty thousand people. The only one willing to take a chance was newly minted Warner Brothers studio executive Fred Weintraub, a New York hipster who had owned the famed Bottom Line nightclub. Over the objections of others at WB, Weintraub advanced one hundred thousand dollars to finance the filming. When the humble “Aquarian Exposition” turned into an epic long weekend that attracted nearly half a million young folks, the demand for the finished film went through the roof. The only rock documentary to ever win an Academy Award (until 2012’s “Searching for Sugar Man” and the following year’s “Twenty Feet from Stardom”), “Woodstock” eventually grossed over fifty million dollars in its theatrical release and has enjoyed a long afterlife on home video, especially in the expanded 230-minute director’s cut introduced in 1994.


Premiering nationally on PBS is the excellent “Woodstock: 3 Days That Defined a Generation.” This trailer may lapse into cliche but this new documentary is a fresh look at the long ago events in upstate NY from a more sociological angle, with all the visuals being archival footage from the event, matched with the voices of those who were there (along with a smattering of key musical moments).

Wadleigh and his hastily assembled seventy-man crew, organized by a young assistant director named Martin Scorsese, spread out over the vast scene, diligently covering every aspect of that long weekend. The music and the hippie idealism are in great supply, of course, but as part of a microcosm of a time that sees past the expected clichés that have long since taken hold. Ironically, a lot of those clichés stem from this very film as well as from the soundtrack album with which it often overlaps. It starts with the warning about the brown LSD that’s “not specifically too good” and goes from there. “New York State Thruway is closed, man!” “If you sing really hard, maybe we can stop this rain!” “There’s always a little bit of heaven in a disaster area.”


“Blind Faith is a groovy group.” A popular clip in the Internet age is the “Emotional Colors” girl, later identified as the late Jeanette McCurdy of Buffalo, NY.

The frequent use of split-screen images showed the multiple perspectives of a situation that the crew saw as an unfolding story that could turn out either way. The “Biblical/epochal” scene described by a joint-rolling Jerry Garcia is established in a twenty-minute prologue before Richie Havens wows the first day crowd with his improvised-on-the-spot anthem “Freedom.” What follows is a steady stream of outstanding (and often career-making) musical performances by the likes of Santana, Sly and the Family Stone, Ten Years After, Joe Cocker, the Who, Crosby, Stills and Nash, and others.

The logistical and crowd scenes that pop up after every three or four songs are every bit as interesting, especially the bravura ten-minute sequence depicting the famous Sunday thunderstorm. It drenched a crowd that had just been galvanized by Cocker’s dramatic recasting of the Beatles’ “With a Little Help from My Friends,” and thrust the stage crew into the role of reassuring the sea of humanity while simultaneously fretting over the fate of their vulnerable light towers and staving off the possibility of electrocution. When the crowd comes out the other end of this mud-covered crucible with their good spirits intact, their reputation is made.

What is just as impressive is the tolerant, even admiring, attitudes towards the crowd from many “straights” in the surrounding area, especially considering the whole county was brought to a virtual standstill because of the event. There’s the genial portable-toilet cleaning man (“glad to do it for these kids”) speaking fondly of both his son at the festival and the other one in Vietnam; the chief of police pronouncing that the hippies “can’t be questioned as good American citizens;” the visibly moved Max Yasgur proclaiming that the legions camped on his farm “have proven something to the world;” and the middle-aged gentleman who suggests to another that he should care more about the kids dying in ’Nam and lay off criticizing the ones smoking pot and sleeping in the field. These people suggest there was too much emphasis on the generation gap back then and too little on the value of good character, regardless of demographics.

Michael Wadleigh would eventually become disillusioned with the film business, making only one more movie (1981’s Wolfen) and eventually turning to environmental activism. Sensing that these “3 Days of Peace & Music” were destined to be the high water mark of the counterculture, the director picked up a camera on Monday morning and filmed scenes of the muddy, garbage-strewn aftermath that he has said were directly influenced by T. S. Eliot’s poem The Wasteland. Because of the weekend’s many delays, the music was not over: When headliner Jimi Hendrix hits a cataclysmic guitar chord that introduces his decade-defining deconstruction of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the camera pulls back to reveal that the cheering audience now numbers around thirty thousand.

In an artfully presented sequence, Wadleigh first stays close to Hendrix as he transforms the national anthem into an implied antiwar protest with an astounding series of explosions, shrieks, and moans coaxed out of his white Stratocaster. He sticks with him as he roars through his monster hit “Purple Haze” (“Is it tomorrow or just the end of time?”) then switches to the dazed stragglers picking through the debris for the odd scrap of food or a pair of discarded sneakers. Hendrix finishes with an elegiac guitar solo that gives the film its soft landing. This thoughtful and somewhat sober ending underlines the feeling that if Woodstock the music festival was the brightest point of light for the ideals of the 1960s youth generation, Woodstock the film was the greatest advocate of those ideals.

Portions of this post were taken from my book Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey. Click on the book cover above, or the link below, to see a 30-page excerpt. Thanks, Rick
https://booklocker.com/books/8905.html

A Shaggy Dog on a “Rainbow Bridge”: Calling in Jimi to Save a Movie From Itself

Rainbow Bridge
Directed by Chuck Wein—1971—125 minutes

Develop a rough idea for a film project, gather together some people to be in it, and then switch on the camera. While this may be a viable plan of action for first year film-school kids, it’s not usually recommended for a high profile project. But amazingly, the motion picture division of Warner Bros. greenlighted two such counterculture projects in 1970: the first was the stillborn documentary “Medicine Ball Caravan” the fascinating backstory of which was my first ever blogpost HERE. The other was the similarly fuzzy “Rainbow Bridge.” Of course, WB had just hit the hippie jackpot with the Woodstock film, which was a box-office smash and eventual Oscar winner for best feature documentary. But to think one could replicate that success without minimal effort was indicative that Hollywood hadn’t evolved its thinking about “youth movies.” When the producers of “Rainbow Bridge,” who included people involved in the management of Jimi Hendrix, saw what they had in the can after burning thru their initial $450,000 budget, they practically begged the legendary guitarist, already on board for the soundtrack, to appear in some specially-arranged concert footage as well. But it would not be enough to save it and the days of the flower-power genre were numbered.


Jimi Hendrix at the Rainbow Bridge concert in Maui, July 1970

“Rainbow Bridge” starts with a blank black screen and a deep important-sounding male voice telling us how the “New Young” are going to bring peace to our planet. Instead, all we get are the inconsequential wanderings of a bright but unremarkable woman named Pat Hartley, who we watch cavorting aimlessly around Los Angeles. Both Hartley and the director, Chuck Wein, were associated with the Andy Warhol Factory scene but what we end up with here is worlds away from the NYC demimonde. The story arc, such as it is, has Hartley flying to Hawaii, where the bumming around re-commences. She ends up at the Rainbow Bridge Occult Research Meditation Center and the inane pseudo-New Age babbling begins. I won’t bore you with the details, as you can bore yourself silly by checking it out yourself: the film is currently available in nine separate parts on YouTube. But a typical eye-roller is when one of the gurus claims he feels “heavy reincarnation vibes from everyone in this room. “ As if one go-around weren’t enough with this crowd. Primarily, “Rainbow Bridge” seems to exist is to confirm the suspicion that no matter how earnest the striving for enlightenment, communal life among the Sixties crowd were just as often marked by petty in-fighting and major dope deals.


Pat Hartley

An hour and twenty minutes of this seems like two lifetimes, so maybe the reincarnation angle isn’t far off. During this stretch, the only highlights have been a few Hendrix songs on the soundtrack (notably “Dolly Dagger” and “Ezy Rider”) played to the antics of a free-spirited Pat Hartley or the wave-catching activities of some surfing/meditating hash freaks. With two-thirds of the film gone, Jimi shows up to lend some much needed credibility to the proceedings. And some entertainment value, too: I enjoyed the scene where our rock star hero play acts a scene where Hendrix brandishes a rifle then shoots one of the self-proclaimed “wizards” from an upper floor window. Adding up that scene, the concert sequence and a stoned conversation he has with Wein and Hartley, Hendrix is only present for probably a little less than 25 minutes of this interminable movie.


This is about all you would need to see of the film. The man himself, playing and rapping back at the house.

But luckily for us in the Internet and home video age, the live performance can be picked out piecemeal from the rest of “Rainbow Bridge” which is more than can be said of the poor ticket-buyers during the film’s original (and brief) theatrical run.Because of the windy conditions that day on the slopes of Maui’s long-dormant Haleakala volcano, a lot of Hendrix’s set was deemed unusable but what remains is well worth seeing, at least in isolation. Accompanied by Mitch Mitchell on drums and Billy Cox on bass, he plays a vigorous set for the few hundred appreciative freaks who got word of the hastily-arranged free show. Highlights are “Voodoo Chile,” “Hear My Train a-Coming” and “Purple Haze,” the latter featuring one of the better displays of Jimi playing guitar with his teeth.


This is the trailer to “Rainbow Bridge.” Consider that a fair warning.

Contrary to the trailer’s claim, this was not exactly Hendrix’s last concert on U.S. soil (he played a gig in Honolulu a couple of days later) but anyone aware of the chronology knows the end is near for one of rock’s greatest icons. Hendrix has barely six weeks to live as we hear him talk of an out-of-body experience. The risky hedonism of a drug-suffused counterculture is of course not a subject to be reckoned with in a film such as this, making the “Rainbow Bridge’s” semi-documentary intentions a bit of a joke. At the end, we are stuck again with the sanctimonious seekers, meeting with a woman who claims to have met with some liberating space aliens and that they “approve of LSD.” Whereas once upon a time this may have elicited whispers of “oh wow” there are many more nowadays ready with a raised hand and quick riposte of “Bye, Felicia.”

My latest book Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey is now available! And now you can try-before-you-buy, click on the link below to go to my author page and view a 30-page excerpt. http://booklocker.com/books/8905.html
Thanks! Rick Ouellette