2017 Film Essays

Murray Lerner’s ‘Festival’: A Prototype for the Music Documentary

It is difficult to imagine what 1960s popular music would have looked like without the Auricon camera. The lightweight, sync-sound camera revolutionized documentary filmmakers’ ability to flexibly and spontaneously observe their subjects. While initially designed for news camerapersons, the Auricon was quickly embraced — and toyed with — by an emerging generation of observational filmmakers including Robert Drew, Richard Leacock, D.A. Pennebaker, Albert and David Maysles, Howard Alk and Murray Lerner. The Auricon was there when Jimi Hendrix lit his guitar on fire and Janis Joplin brought the house down with “Ball and Chain” at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival. The Auricon was there when John Lennon made his return to live performance at the 1969 Toronto Rock and Roll Revival. The Auricon was there when teenager Meredith Hunter was killed by a member of the Hell’s Angels in front of The Rolling Stones at Altamont. And as Lerner’s Festival (1967) shows, the Auricon was there much earlier, when Bob Dylan arose as a generational spokesperson for the folk revival, only to soon make the sin of embracing the electric guitar.

Festival depicts the American folk revival of the 1960s through observing the annual Newport Folk Festival between 1963 and 1966. The film now reads as a remarkable historical document of a rich cultural moment, one that presaged the more revolutionary developments of the later decade but is also fascinating on its own terms. Festival captures events at Newport in which folk music could hardly be reduced to nostalgia or serve only as a functional platform for protest: it saw the interaction of younger and older generations as a revival not just of a music genre but of performers who risked becoming lost to history. The blues guitarist and singer Son House, for example, had retired from music before being “rediscovered” by the new folk generation, and Newport saw him treated as an object of worship. American genres from gospel to jazz to black spirituals readily intersected at the festival, producing a scene not of “folk music” in an exclusive generic sense, but as an ethos of vernacular Americana. Of course, the big names are on full display, including Pete Seeger, Peter, Paul and Mary, Donovan, Joan Baez and Bob Dylan. But unlike the more canonized and better-known 60s festival documentaries like Monterey Pop, Woodstock and Gimme Shelter, the subjects of Festival constitute a relatively diverse and inclusive notion of what would come to be called the “counterculture.” Being old was no crime at Newport.

There are perhaps a few reasons why Festival is not as well known as its more canonized music documentary contemporaries. As editor Alan Heim states in The Criterion Collection’s new program about the film’s making, Lerner continually re-edited the film in post-production for an extended period, and did not give in to seeing its completion until urged by Heim. When Festival was first theatrically released in December 1967, it was on the coattails of another, higher-profile documentary featuring Bob Dylan, Pennebaker’s Dont Look Back, the events of which look place after Dylan’s performances at Newport. By comparison, Lerner’s portrait of Dylan looked positively dated. While Festival captured the event of Dylan “going electric” in 1965, Dont Look Back featured a contemporaneous Dylan fully settled into his new persona. Festival was already a historical document at the moment of its availability to the public, a portrait of a scene that had in several ways faded and evolved. Popular music culture, it turns out, can easily move at a faster pace than post-production.

Because of its heretofore overlooked status, however, Festival has gone undervalued for its inventive formal strategies, especially considering what an early entry this is within the Auricon-assisted concert documentary cycle.

By 1968, there existed a somewhat fixed idea of what a festival documentary is based upon the model established by Pennebaker’s Monterey Pop: filmmakers capture an isolated event, and footage of a select song or two by particular acts is interspersed with footage of and/or interviews with festivalgoers. According to Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, Monterey Pop was the explicit frame of reference amongst Warner Bros. executives when they debated whether to distribute Michael Wadleigh’s Woodstock. The festival documentary had become such a fixture as a genre that Pennebaker soon grew tired of it, having reportedly rejected multiple offers throughout the end of the decade to film concerts following Monterey Pop (with the exception of the Toronto Rock and Roll Revival). The Maysles brothers chose to upend the genre entirely after the murder at Altamont when making Gimme Shelter, choosing during post-production to make a film less about a concert and more about the camera’s ability to capture the unfolding of an apocalyptic event, a point of view established when opening footage of the Rolling Stones in concert is depicted through a Steenbeck editing machine.

Filmed during the infancy of the festival documentary and far from subject to these defining tropes, Festival is ambitious and free form in its construction. Although the film captured the Newport Folk Festival across several years, no designations are made regarding the particular years being depicted, and the passage of time is only hinted at through the evolution of select acts, such as Dylan. Instead, Lerner combines moments that add to an aura of the overall cultural scene. Any sense of the film’s structure as an event beginning and ending is indicated only by a shot of festivalgoers arriving at the beginning and an end credits sequence featuring Seeger leading a chorus of musicians in “Down by the Riverside.” Lerner is more interested in using his footage to illustrate ideas about folk music, putting the music itself in dialogue with statements by musicians and fans. As he states in the aforementioned Criterion program (filmed not long before his death this September), Lerner adopted an approach to post-production inspired by the work of Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein, “colliding” juxtaposed shots in order to communicate ideas that existed in neither alone. For example, Lerner introduces the controversial event of Dylan going electric after an interview subject states, “What we call folk now, two, three-hundred years ago was pop. You see? We change.”

In a revealing example of Lerner’s Eisensteinian approach, Festival combines two interviews, both mostly in extreme close-up, with younger and older blues guitarists Mike Bloomfield and Son House. House presents his philosophy of the blues while Bloomfield self-consciously discusses his adoption of others’ music. Bloomfield’s commentary reveals the terms of authenticity that the younger generation projected onto older musicians like Son House, but also shows how that appropriation can go from knowing tribute of established styles to an exoticizing view of African American music as a “mystic” cultural object. For Son House, the blues is a necessary response to life’s circumstances, a transformation of feeling into song, while for Bloomfield, the blues is a conscious extension of the legacy of others. This juxtaposition presents a nuanced view into the politics of authenticity driving the 1960s American popular music scene, a portrait of conscious appropriation more complex than is typically remembered of 60s music.

Presaging Gimme Shelter, Festival hardly presents itself as an official portrait of a larger cultural event and instead highlights the constructed-ness of documentary filmmaking from its opening moments. The film’s first scene, before its beginning credits, shows a filmmaker using his hands as a clapboard before Mel Lyman and a group of contemporaries (perhaps members of the notorious Fort Hill Community) jam for the camera. But the sound and images get slowed down as the camera runs out of film. Then the footage returns with the filmmakers openly discussing with the musicians that the rest of the performance was not captured, and the musicians joke with the filmmakers about switching places. Festival returns to this footage of Lyman late in the film, which indicates that little of what we have seen throughout Festival has been presented in chronological order.

From the beginning, Festival establishes that what’s presented is not a “complete” account of these years at Newport, but an idea of the festival through the filmmaker’s observations. In this respect, Festival challenged the notion of an observational concert film before this mode of filmmaking ever really got going. It may not have intended to be a work of history, only becoming so through the circumstances of its release and protracted appreciation. But like any great work of history, Festival challenges our preconceptions about the past — in this case, that of folk music and of music documentaries themselves.

Landon Palmer (@landonspeak) is a film, media and popular music historian at the University of Tampa. In 2017, he completed a PhD in Film and Media Studies at Indiana University-Bloomington’s Department of Communication and Culture.Landon is currently writing a book on rock stars’ performances in movies.

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