Somewhere between a farm in upstate New York and a racetrack in Northern California
lies a small island off the coast of England. Geographically, this might seem an
impossibility, but in terms of rock & roll topography -- and its concordant
cinematic landscape -- it makes perfect sense. You see, until recently most music
scholars considered the festivals at Woodstock and Altamont to be the bookends of
an idealistic era. Okay, the Monterey Pop Festival would also have to anchor one
end, but it's Woodstock that's most certainly the apex of the nascent rock &
roll era, while Altamont signals its end like some musical equivalent of the My Lai
massacre. Simple, right? Not so fast.
In 1970, a year or so after both the Woodstock and Altamont festivals, documentaries
about each gathering were released in the theatres. The three-hour Woodstock
movie (boosted to nearly four hours in 1994) won not only critical kudos for capturing
the flower power generation and its accompanying soundtrack, it also won the Oscar
for best documentary. That same year, brothers Albert & David Maysles released
Gimme Shelter, hailed for its chilling account of the Rolling Stones' decision
to hire the Hell's Angels to police their Woodstock-wannabe fest in Altamont, a decision
which led to mayhem and murder.
At roughly the same time that hippies and Hollywood were coming together to document
the rock & roll revolution, a young filmmaker from New Jersey by the name of
Murray Lerner was in England trying to capitalize on the marriage of movies and music
by filming what would ostensibly be the last great concert of its kind, the Isle
of Wight Festival. Having gotten into the game in the early Sixties with his documentary
about the Newport Folk Festival (simply titled Festival), Lerner had already
screened Woodstock and didn't like what he'd seen.
"That's what impelled me to want to do this film," says Lerner by phone
from his Manhattan offices. "I thought [Woodstock] glossed over too many
things. I wouldn't have said it then, but I'll say it now. I felt, `No, this isn't
right. I gotta do the other.' I felt that behind the scenes, there were similar things
to what I show in my film. But why should they be impelled to show it? Well, it isn't
that they have to, but they were making the point that everything was hunky-dory
-- peace & love obviously. And I don't believe it."
One would be inclined to agree after seeing Lerner's Message to Love: The Isle
of Wight Festival. A two-hour documentary about a show that featured many of
the same performers who played Woodstock (Jimi Hendrix, the Who, Ten Years After,
Joan Baez, John Sebastian) as well as a plethora of other big names (the Doors, Miles
Davis, Joni Mitchell, Kris Kristofferson, Leonard Cohen, Free, Jethro Tull, E.L.P),
Lerner's film focuses on the struggle the festival's promoters faced when hundreds
of thousands attendees refused to pay [[sterling]]3 and instead tried to crash the
gate. Interspersed with footage of Hendrix laying waste to "Foxy Lady"
and the Who turning Mose Allison's "Young Man Blues" into a hard-rock classic,
are scenes such as the one in which promoter Rikki Farr screams at the 600,000 people:
"And if you come to this country and we hafta charge you three pounds,
if you don't want to pay it, don't fucking well come! We put on this festival,
you bastards, with a lot of love and you wanna break our walls down and wanna
destroy it, you go to hell."
Equally adamant were the militant hippies who wanted in free and the stoned freaks
who were camped out on "Desolation Row," an area of hillside outside the
corrugated fence enclosing the festival grounds. "This festival business is
becoming a psychedelic concentration camp," says one of the party crashers.
In the end, only an estimated 50,000 paid to see a world-class line-up, spelling
financial ruin for the promoters and causing the white-hot tension -- and sometimes
open warfare -- that Lerner has captured in his film. Woodstock it wasn't.
"Woodstock glossed over all that stuff," asserts Lerner, "and
that was the stuff that really gave rise to the puzzling contradictions in the hippie
movement because, essentially, it became a way of making money for a lot of people
behind the scenes. I'm not begrudging them, I guess I'm jealous; they made millions
off that thing. And everybody talked as if it were a work of charity. Whereas I really
made no money."
Originally, the organizers, having seen Lerner's Festival, merely wanted
to screen that film at Wight. When the director proposed to film the concert for
a Woodstock-style tie-in, they agreed. Unfortunately, the promoters were to go belly
up, and Lerner was left with 175 hours of footage and no backing to edit and release
it. Thus, for the past 25 years, the film -- really, the mid-point between the musical
document that is Woodstock and the mayhem that is Gimme Shelter --
languished in Lerner's possession until Castle Communications and the BBC decided
that the 25th anniversary of the festival would make a good excuse to release the
movie, which premiered in 1995 at a film festival in San Jose.
And not only is Message to Love finally in a position to settle the Isle of
Wight Festival into its rightful place in rock & roll lore, it's also finally
making Lerner some money. In the last year, the reissues branch of Sony, Columbia
Legacy, has released two aural documents from the festival: the two-CD soundtrack,
featuring almost all of the two dozen or so musical performances in the film; and
the righteous, two-CD packaging of the Who's entire set ("I nurtured that for
several years," says Lerner). In addition, the filmmaker says the Who are interested
in releasing an 85-minute video of the group performing Tommy, and there's
been talk in the Doors' camp about releasing a feature-length video of their set.
A video of Hendrix's portion of the show already exists in England, and will soon
be available in the States through Rhino.
"That came out in 1990," says Lerner, referring to the Hendrix video.
"It's interesting; I was hesitant to put it out, because I thought it would
kill any investment in the film, but it was just the opposite. People had been concerned
about the quality of the film because of the black-and-white workprints and the scratch
[sound] track. The [Hendrix] footage convinced them the quality was great, the soundtrack
In fact, because Message to Love does such a fine job of underscoring the
ideology of a generation in conflict with the commercialism of festivals like Wight,
it's easy to forget about the quality performances captured by Lerner over the five
days that the festival raged; for every two or three minutes of behind-the-scenes
chaos, there's a musical interlude. Besides scene-stealing sequences from Hendrix,
the Doors, and the Who, there are priceless turns from Leonard Cohen ("Suzanne"),
and Tiny Tim ("There'll Always Be an England"). Even Free, doing "All
Right Now," are captured during what must be the only 10 minutes they ever mattered.
The finest moments, however, are undoubtedly during Joni Mitchell's set. Following
an onstage flare-up of tensions during which Mitchell is accosted by someone who
looks uncannily like Charles Manson ("Yeah, it's eerie, but he's not"),
Mitchell delivers an emotional rebuttal to the audience, saying, "I think you're
acting like tourists -- give us some respect," before launching into a not-so-ironic
version of "Big Yellow Taxi" ("They paved paradise and put up a parking
lot"). Later, she turns up again with a stark reading of "Woodstock."
"As an event, I'd say that scene is the most unusual I have," says Lerner.
"And that's just the tip of the iceberg. There's a fantastic amount of [unseen]
documentary footage. There's also a lot of musical footage that's also the tip of
the iceberg. A lot of them were great performances. Miles Davis was great as a whole.
And the Moody Blues did a great set. I'm a great fan of Jethro Tull in that period
-- I loved his zany approach to things. That's an easy hour right there. So, who
knows, maybe more [spin-offs] will happen."
Full Length Reviews
Message to Love: Isle of Wight Festival
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