The Wight Stuff
By Raoul Hernandez
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.
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 was fantastic."
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."
Message to Love: The Isle of Wight Festival opens at the Dobie Theatre on June 20.
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