Murray Lerner

Rock Doc spotlight: “Both Sides Now: Joni Mitchell at the Isle of Wight 1970”

Directed by Murray Lerner—1970/2018—76 minutes

We are just a few months away from the outpouring of tributes and remembrances marking the 50th anniversary of the Woodstock festival. A lot of that of course will focus on that weekend’s legendary line-up of performers. But what of one artist who didn’t end up on that stage in Bethel, New York, even though she wrote the definitive anthem of the event? Joni Mitchell was scheduled to play for the masses gathered on Max Yasgur’s famous field. But as travel logistics to and from the festival got worse, Joni was held back at the urging (or insistence) of David Geffen and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. They wanted to make sure that they had at least one guaranteed performer for a scheduled post-Woodstock edition of the Dick Cavett Show. This left a very disappointed Ms. Mitchell to write her brooding but beatific “Woodstock” after watching news coverage of it from a hotel room.

But Joni would appear at a larger multi-day festival the following summer. The 1970 edition of England’s Isle of Wight event (where attendance topped out at some 600,000), was marked by an acrimonious struggle between radical elements of the audience and what was perceived as greedy owners who cordoned off the grounds and had the audacity to charge admission. Anyone who has seen Murray Lerner’s exemplary documentary of the festival (Message to Love) will know of the fence-busting and the rhetorical fireworks emanating from the stage by both sides. And they would also recall Joni Mitchell’s segment from the film, where she is interrupted by a man trying to borrow her microphone for an impromptu rant.

Both Sides Now faces those troubles head-on, beginning with a sneak preview of Joni doing the famous title intercut with scenes of the general turmoil. The line “it’s life’s illusions I recall” takes on a new meaning here. Symbolically, the 1970 Wight festival was the smudging of the rose-colored lenses thru which Woodstock’s Aquarian ideal was viewed. The commodification of the rock music marketplace, with its vast legions of potential consumers, was well under way. Murray Lerner, who died in 2017, produced several single-artist offshoot videos from his extensive footage, including those of headlining acts like the Who, Jimi Hendrix and the Doors. But this edition, graced with the astute reminisces of Mitchell from a 2003 interview, stands with the best of them both musically and thematically.


Everywhere there was song and celebration… and insurgency? The 1970 Isle of Wight festival as seen from the top of the non-paying section dubbed Desolation Row. Many would try to bust in thru the fencing.

Certainly, fans of Joni should not pass this one by, either by viewing the full set on YouTube or by obtaining the keepsake Blu-ray edition. Right from the top, as she straps on her acoustic guitar and starts into the lovely “Song about the Midway,” you can tell this is some special stuff. At this point, she had three albums worth of her uniquely introspective and romantic songs to draw on and her star was on the rise, her current single (“Big Yellow Taxi”) hitting #11 on the U.K. charts. Mitchell was a seasoned performer, confident enough to do three songs from her future classic album, Blue, which wouldn’t come out until the next summer.


Joni performs “Song about the Midway” and “Gallery.”

Joni, whose father’s ancestry was Norwegian, was famously described as a “Nordic princess” in Sheila Weller’s popular 2008 book Girls Like Us, was a luminous presence in her long flaxen hair, tangerine-colored maxi dress and turquoise necklace. The cameramen, after days of shooting hairy guys in hard-rock bands, couldn’t get enough of her. Even when there’s a flub she makes something out of it; after a couple of verses of “Chelsea Morning” she tells the crowd she doesn’t feel like singing that much, but not before finishing the abbreviated number with an impressive flurry of her distinctive open-tuned guitar stylings.

But playing solo acoustic to such a huge and restive crowd proved a little dicey: in Message to Love we see a glib Kris Kristofferson getting nearly booed off the stage. For Joni, the trouble starts when a man who seems like he’s on a bad acid trip is extracted from the crowd close in front of her. She has sat down at the piano for a couple of tunes, singing about a street musician playing “For Free” while her world consists of limo rides and “velvet curtain calls.” Then she tries in vain to get the crowd to sing “we are stardust, we are golden” in the chorus to “Woodstock.” When a man who had been sitting behind her tries to borrow her mike he is all but wrestled off the stage. With the masses ready to erupt, Mitchell exhorts the crowd (at the 2:00 mark of the video below) to give the musicians “some respect” while the man, freaky as he may seem, tells the organizers at the end of that clip that we are indeed “caught in the devil’s bargain.”


Joni Mitchell SINGS “Woodstock.” Then, though visibly nervous, she confronts the unruly isle of Wight crowd after having her performance interrupted by the head of the Committee to Paint the Fence Invisible.

In the interview segments, Joni reflects on just how unnerving the experience was for her 26 year-old self. She remarks on how the 1970 Wight event was the “Hate-the-Performers Festival” and that some of the stars brought it on themselves by arriving in luxury cars or in custom caravans. The event was running behind the schedule and she agreed to play in the tension-filled afternoon instead of at night, in effect being “fed to the beast.” The trouble was stirred up by a faction (which included a pack of French anarchists) called the “Free Festival Radicals.” They were camped out on the hillside behind the site and spent much of their time trying to tear down the fence. The idea that music is some sort of natural occurrence, like the sun setting over an ocean, instead of the end result of a laborious creative process, was a thing at the time (also evident in the film Festival Express, filmed the same year). It is as galling as the idea of illegal downloading that started with Napster and that has made life nowadays even more difficult for musicians not in the upper echelons.

Also in the interviews, Mitchell explains her revelation that a large audience is like a giant dragon with the first five rows like the head. If you placate that part of it, it will send a calming message back down to the rest. Joni finished the set to a won-over audience and one of the best shots Lerner has is the sight of her running back onto the stage for an encore. Yes, the beast of a mass-market rock ‘n’ roll marketplace was about to take over and Mitchell would be one of its most visible jet-setting stars. But in this case, it’s because her talents were rewarded by paying fans who allowed her to keep doing her thing. In view of the lowest-common-denominator, computer-enhanced pop stars that dominate today’s scene, we have indeed paved paradise and put up a parking lot.

You can check out the excerpt of my book “Rock Docs: A fifty-Year Cinematic Jorney” at http://booklocker.com/books/8905.html or by clicking on the book cover image above. If interested in purchasing, you can contact me directly for a special offer and free shipping! Thanks, Rick.
rick.ouellette@verizon.net

The Annotated “Rock Docs” Radio Special

by Rick Ouellette

Last month, I was honored to be interviewed by DJ Bob Dubrow of WMBR-FM 88.1 in Cambridge, Mass. to talk about my book Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey. Why honored, you ask? Because Bob is not just your average guy blabbing with some local scribbler with a book to peddle. He interviews (on a regular basis) many of your favorite musicians from the Sixties and Seventies, which is the focal point of the “Lost and Found” show which airs on “the Big 88” every weekday from noon-2PM (Bob is usually in the Tuesday slot). Your humble blogger and indie author was preceded the previous week by Bob Cowsill of the famous singing family and was followed by Justin Hayward (Moody Blues) and Paul Rodgers (Free/Bad Company) the next two Tuesdays.

You can click the link below to hear the whole two-hour show or, if you’re pressed for time like most people, I will break it down into sections so you can jump ahead to certain interview segments or songs. Please note, however, that you can’t rewind on this slider. Also, check out Bob’s many great past interviews by visiting his MixCloud page at https://www.mixcloud.com/bob-dubrow/

For about the first four minutes, I get to talk a little bit about myself and how I came to write the book, while you become acclimated to my velvety radio voice 😉. Bob arranged the show to revolve around the work of various directors who have made the filming of rock music subjects a facet of their careers. I thought this was a good idea as it shows that from the beginning of the books timeline (1964) there were serious filmmakers recording performances and depicting real-life events of musical artists that were shaping a major cultural shift of the 20th century.


David (left) and Albert Maysles filming Mick Jagger during the making of Gimme Shelter.

First up, we discuss David and Albert Maysles (at the 5:00 mark) who were hired to film The Beatles First U.S. Visit only a couple of hours before the group’s plane landed in New York in February of 1964. The notion of rock mass-media was so new that the Maysles were giving full-access, sight unseen, by the Beatles management, giving us an up close look at this now-legendary event, which today would have a virtual army of handlers attached to it. The other two parts of rock’s great triumvirate (the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan) were also committed to non-fiction celluloid before 1964 was out: the Stones on The T.A.M.I. Show and Dylan at the Newport Folk Fest. Director Murray Lerner in fact, filmed at Newport for several years and compiled his highlights in the 1967 doc Festival!

At 14:10, Bob plays Dylan’s very plugged-in version of Maggie’s Farm from Newport 1965 that has gone down in legend (and is seen in the Festival! film). So many rumors have surrounded this watershed Dylan-goes-electric moment—did Pete Seeger try to cut the cord with an axe, was Bobby booed off stage—that Mr. Dubrow’s anecdote he learned from an interview with Newport participant producer Joe Boyd gives an fascinating spin on this famous tale.

Discussion of the work of Murray Lerner continues with his film Message to Love: The Isle of Wight Festival (at 28:45), his outstanding doc of that 1970 event attended by 600,000 people but, because of funding issues, not released until 1997. Bob plays a song not seen in the original film, Leonard Cohen’s “That’s No Way to Say Goodbye” preceded by some typically esoteric stage banter from the bard of Montreal.


Leonard Cohen at the 1970 Isle of Wight festival

The crucial role of documentary makers in preserving the counterculture experience for posterity—the good, the bad an the ugly—is discussed (at 28:45) in the section about the Maysles Brothers’ Gimme Shelter, about the Stone’s 1969 US tour that ended in the calamitous Altamont festival. At 32:15, Bob cues up the disheveled version of “Under My Thumb” during which the Hell’s Angels murdered a gun-brandishing audience member.

A discussion of the venerable American documentarian D.A. Pennebaker starts at 38:35. Pennebaker (like the Maysles) was an adherent of the new Direct Cinema and their fly-on-the-wall methods often yielded startling results, like D.A.’s bracing classic Don’t Look Back. At 38:35, Dylan’s defiant version of “Like a Rolling Stone” from his 1966 UK tour (also controversial with the folkie purists).

At 47:30, we discuss another Pennebaker film (and my all-time favorite rockumentary) Monterey Pop and after that Bob Plays a couple of songs from that beatific Summer of Love event, one at 51:27 from Buffalo Springfield (from a DVD extra) and one from the legendary set by Otis Redding (at 54:20). Also, he plays a song from a later Pennebaker film shot in 1973, the title song from the David Bowie concert film Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.


Among the legendary performances captured by Pennebaker at Monterey Pop, the Who’s “smashing” version “My Generation” ranks near the top.

At 1:03:25 the name Peter Whitehead comes up. Though not a household name in the States, Whitehead produced several music videos for the Rolling Stones (as well as the first film about them 1965’s Charlie is MY Darling)
His most lasting effort is probably the free-form Swinging London opus “Tonite Let’s All Make Love in London From that film’s soundtrack we hear the part of a wild live-in-studio jam on “Interstellar Overdrive” by the original Pink Floyd (founder Syd Barrett was a friend of Whitehead).

Another British director, Tony Palmer, met John Lennon when the Beatles visited Cambridge University where he was a student. (Starting at 1:10:30) He ended up at the BBC where he used his Beatle connection to be introduced to many of the rock stars that would appear in his musical-sociological study All My Loving. He would film the final show of one of the bands featured. From Cream: The Farewell Concert Bob plays a great version of their hit “Sunshine of Your Love.”

The next filmmaker on the docket (at 1:27:30) is Michael Lindsay-Hogg, known for capturing England’s two most prominent bands at the end of the Sixties. From the Rolling Stones Rock ‘n’ Roll Circus we get the one-night-only supergroup The Dirty Macs (with Lennon, Eric Clapton and Keith Richards) doing “Yer Blues” (at 1:29:50) and from the Beatles swan-song doc Let it Be Bob plays “I’ve Got a Feeling” from the rooftop concert.


The Beatles in “Let it Be.” Though the film depicts the fraying of the group’s unity that would lead to their breakup, the film is redeemed by the rooftop concert. From the book: Like a pack of squabbling brothers who find themselves in better temper after obeying a parent’s order to “go out and get some fresh air,” the mood of the film brightens as soon as the band emerges from the stairwell onto the rooftop. It may have been a chilly, overcast London afternoon but as soon as they launch into the remonstrative rocker “Get Back” the Beatles seem warmed up to the idea that they are out there to prove themselves. A month’s worth of studio work was not in vain.

Of course, no discussion about classic rock docs can be complete without Woodstock, which made Warner Bros. a ton of money while also being good enough to take the Oscar for Documentary Feature in 1970. It’s true, as Bob points: what hasn’t been said about this iconic film. But I hope, we added a few new insights here and there about these films in general. Hopefully, the time and care I put into making this book more of “journey” through fifty years of music and lives, transcending the (still useful and user-friendly) anthology format. So if interested, click on the book cover above, or the link below, to see the index and the first 20+ pages of the text.

You can check out the excerpt at http://booklocker.com/books/8905.html or by clicking on the book cover image above. If interested in purchasing, you can contact me directly for a special offer and free shipping! Thanks, Rick.
rick.ouellette@verizon.net

“Rock Docs” Sampler #2, The Bests of the Fests

Rock festivals, especially those in the golden era of the late 60s and early 70s, are the source for some of the best filmed footage in pop music history. The primary reason for this is pretty obvious. The parade of musical talent for 1967’s Monterey Pop, 1969’s Woodstock and 1970’s Isle of Wight festivals is awe-inspiring, especially in retrospect: high-water marks of a genius era. But they are also great sociological snapshots of their time period and often the audience members are just as entertaining as the performers!

Below are five excerpts from my new book Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey about this important rockumentary sub-genre, with accompanying vdeo clips. For a 30-page excerpt and purchase information about this book, please click on the link below or on the book cover image in the right-hand column. Thanks, Rick Ouellette

http://booklocker.com/books/8905.html

From the review of Monterey Pop (released 1968, directed by D.A. Pennebaker)

There’s hardly a baby-boomer to be found who doesn’t know something of the quartet of near-mythic Monterey Moments: the Who’s pre-punk working class anthem “My Generation” ending in a cacophony of smashed equipment, Janis Joplin’s no-holds-barred belting on the bluesy “Ball and Chain,” soul singer Otis Redding’s electrifying set winning over the “love crowd” in a career peak just six months before dying in a plane crash, and, of course, Jimi Hendrix’s epic eroticisation of the hitherto harmless ditty “Wild Thing.” The Seattle native had gone to England to make his name, and here reintroduced himself to America with a stunning display of six-string mastery that culminated with the famous fiery sacrifice of his instrument.

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From Woodstock (released 1970, directed by Michael Wadleigh)

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.

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From Message to Love: The isle of Wight Festival (released 1997, directed by Murray Lerner)

With six hundred thousand rock fans ferrying over from mainland England in August 1970, the third annual Isle of Wight Festival was one of the biggest concert events in history. Unfortunately, the five-day festival turned out to be a financial failure, and the commissioned footage from director Murray Lerner’s crew did not emerge as a feature film until a quarter of a century later. Nevertheless, Message to Love is a documentary that deserves to sit up on the same mantle as Monterey Pop and Gimme Shelter. It contains a wealth of great musical moments; especially notable are clips of both Jimi Hendrix and the Doors’ Jim Morrison shortly before their deaths as well as footage of the Who at the very apex of their career. It is also a clear-eyed view of an event that was supposed to be an English Woodstock but instead descended into utter chaos as the Aquarian hippie ideal knocked heads with the emerging notion that rock music was ripe for mass-market exploitation.

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From Wattstax (released 1973, directed by Mel Stuart)

Every music festival film has at least one classic show-stealer and in Wattstax that moment arrives when Rufus Thomas, the perennial Memphis favorite duly advertised as “The Prince of Dance” on the L.A. Coliseum scoreboard, takes the stage. Appearing for all the world to see in a hot pink suit with short pants and white go-go boots, he works up the crowd to such a degree with “The Breakdown” that when he then instructs them to “Do the Funky Chicken,” thousands of dancers storm the football field to oblige him.

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From Glastonbury (released 2006, directed by Julien Temple)

The Glastonbury Festival in rural England holds a rather unique place in the annals of rock as being the one outdoor event started in the Woodstock era that has continued—despite a few missed years—straight into the present day, adapting and growing exponentially but still retaining much of its counterculture spirit. Rockumentary master Julien Temple has funneled this considerable history into a vibrant, if occasionally jumbled, film record of just under two and a half hours. He benefits from the availability of vintage early footage (some of it from 1971’s Glastonbury Fayre) and adds in his accounting of the modern festival (Temple shot there from 2002-05) with much attention to the event’s evolving sociology and an extensive sampling of live performances clips. What is just as memorable as this multi-generational musical cornucopia is the thirty-ring post-hippie circus that accompanies it: a freewheeling pagan arts fair and anti-establishment concave that equals or even overshadows what’s on the main stage.