Rock festival films

Documentary Spotlight: Jazz on a Summer’s Day (1959)

This summer, bereft of the outdoor music concerts so beloved at this time of year, is the perfect time to catch up with the classic festival films. So what better time to begin at the beginning and discover (or rediscover) the one that started it all. Famed New York commercial/fashion photographer Bert Stern came to Newport in 1958, with a somewhat different project in mind. According to film critic in his Boston Sunday Globe documentary page, “Stern initially planned to have the festival serve as a backdrop for a fictional narrative.” Apparently, he found the 1958 edition of the Newport Jazz Fest was far more interesting as a primary subject. How could it not with a line-up that included Louis Armstrong Mahalia Jackson, Thelonious Monk, Gerry Mulligan, Dinah Washington, Chuck Berry and other greats?


Louis Armstrong in full flight.

With its scene-establishing prologue, exciting close-up views of the performers and scanning shots of distinctive audience members, Stern’s film would be a table-setter for several notable rock festival documentaries to come: Woodstock, Monterrey Pop and Gimme Shelter being the most famous. It not only captures the giants of their genre in a live setting but also serve as sociological snapshots of their era. In the era that preceded those big rock music events, it was the annual Newport Jazz Festival that was the place to be for city hipsters and savvy suburbanites alike. While Jazz on a Summer’s Day doesn’t have the momentous vibe of those three rock films, Bert Stern’s work is a star-studded look back to a time when postwar jazz was at the height of its popularity and a partying youth culture was starting to butt up against the genteel high society of this Rhode Island resort.


Shades of summer: Fans at Newport ’58

Stern quickly establishes the breezy carnival atmosphere of the 1958 edition of the festival as a moderately rebellious beatnik crowd blends into the gauzy, Eisenhower-era comfort zone with relative ease. There’s some wild carousing at an oceanfront rental and a recurring theme where a roving Dixieland combo promotes the festival by showing up all over town, blaring from the back of an antique car or serenading on a moonlit beach. (This may be leftover footage from the aborted feature-film idea). The actual concert footage starts with Anita O’Day entertaining an afternoon crowd of more-formally dressed folks with some wild scat singing during her elaborate deconstructions of “Sweet Georgia Brown” and “Tea for Two.” Be-bop, the preeminent branch of the jazz tree back then, is represented with fine segments featuring Sonny Stitt and Thelonious Monk. Unfortunately, the intercutting of yachting footage (that season’s America’s Cup trial runs were also taking place) proves to be a considerable distraction during Monk’s number.

Saxophonist Gerry Mulligan is on stage as the nighttime segment starts and things begin to loosen up with a younger and more integrated crowd taking over. A few of them even look like they’re on drugs (the very idea!). Bluesy belters Dinah Washington and Big Maybelle wow an audience that’s all about dancing and singing along, and the good vibes peak with a sublime medley from the immortal Louis Armstrong. He starts with a tender “Lazy River” and finishes with a rollicking “When the Saints Go Marching In,” and along the way there’s at least one of Pop’s stratospheric trumpet solos. The only miscue in the performance clips is Chuck Berry doing a rather lackluster version of “Sweet Little Sixteen.” It hints at a tendency the Newport promoters would later develop when tastes changed and non-jazz performers became less of an exception.

But all is set right as Saturday night passes into Sunday morning, when Mahalia Jackson closes the film with a rousing gospel set. The ritual of a cross-section of people enjoying music al-fresco on a summer’s weekend would become a lot more common in the decades to come, but here it still seems new, which makes Stern’s idea of filming the fans as intimately as he does the performers feel prophetic. It’s something we’re all missing now and for maybe some time to come. The audience here at Newport—-the ones in cat’s-eyes glasses and plaid pants mixing with those in berets and turtlenecks—-didn’t “change the world” like those at the ballyhooed rock mega-festivals a decade later. But they and the musicians fed off each other in a communal rapture of the type that may feel new all over again once we ever get back to it.

For more info on the virtual re-release of the digitally restored Jazz on a Summer’s Day go to kinomarquee.com

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 also contact me directly for a special offer and free shipping! Thanks, Rick.
rick.ouellette@verizon.net

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. Photo Copyright: Chris Weston

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

“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.