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Interview: Director Noah Lerner on Murray Lerner’s ‘Festival!’

Festival! Documentary

From December 2019 until February 2020, The Museum of Arts and Design (MAD) in New York City is celebrating “The World of Anna Sui,” with an exhibit and screening series about the prolific fashion designer. Over the course of her storied career, Sui has been influenced by a number of stylish films, one of which is director Murray Lerner’s 1967 documentary on the Newport Folk Festival entitled Festival!. It’s a remarkable look at the mid-60s and the particular counter-culture that the festival attracted, as well as, of course, the legendary musicians who took part in it: Son House, Peter, Paul and Mary, Joan Baez, Donovan and Bob Dylan (where his infamous “electric” set took place in 1965, which Lerner’s cameras captured), amongst others. Sui was inspired to create her Fall 1999 collection due to both the film as well as her then-new friendship with Lerner, who was her next door neighbor. 

On December 19, MAD screened Festival! with Sui and Murray’s son, Noah, in attendance. Noah is a director in his own right, having made numerous short subject and feature-length films, the bulk of which are documentaries themselves. Noah also worked on several of his father’s films growing up, including 1991’s Jimi Hendrix at the Isle of Wight and 1996’s Message to Love: The Isle of Wight Festival. After a screening of the Criterion Collection’s 2017 restoration of Festival!, I had the pleasure of speaking with Noah about his father’s film, Murray’s relationship with Sui (and fashion in general) and the documentary’s legacy. We began by marveling at Festival!’s opening shot, a lengthy one-er depicting the throng of attendees entering Newport while the roster of musicians scrolls by. 

Lerner: Films like this aren’t made anymore.

No, theyre really not. And certainly not documentaries.

No, I mean, I always say — you can see it right from the very first shot, y’know where they have the list of all the performers? That’s a four-minute shot! That shot would never be there in today’s day and age, they would cut it.

When your dad started this, did he have a plan in mind in terms of its gonna take a few years,” or was it something he was finding along the way?

Well, he was — he had a deal with George Wein of the festival, and he was documenting it, and then as he started documenting it, he realized that there was a form here. He wasn’t initially trying to make a documentary film over multiple years. He was just — it was a gig to capture something. 

So he was hired?

Yeah, by the Newport film foundation. And then at a certain point, he realized that there was something here, in terms of a story he wanted to tell with the youth, with young people and with musicians that he loved, y’know. 

Because this isnt just a concert film, this is a portrait of that time.

He would never say, y’know — I mean he’s a music documentarian, but of course he would never say he’s making a “concert film,” ever. 

Did he start out as a still photographer at all? The images in this are amazing.

No, but he was a great cinematographer, y’know what I mean? And he hired good cinematographers, too. He worked with great cinematographers. I’m always impressed by — I’m biased, of course, but by the cinematography and the editing of the film. 

How involved was he in the editing?

Very. I mean, He and the editor Howard Alk were very good friends. Howard Alk was good friends with Albert Grossman, [Bob] Dylan’s manager. Howard and my dad were best friends, and they worked on a number of films together. In fact, I’m working with his son on a film, and I’ve worked with him on a couple films, so it’s nice to continue that relationship. But yeah, Howard and my dad worked together for a long time, until Howard died, in the 80s.

They mustve been cutting during the years they were shooting.

Yeah, I think they started in ‘64, [and] they finished in ‘67. They had a finished film a little bit before that, but there was stuff going on with the Newport film foundation. 

“Stuff.” [Laughs]

[Laughs] Yeah, there was some stuff going on. I mean, I’ll be honest — it doesn’t matter, most of these people are dead now, anyway. There was a lot of — once they saw a cut of it, then they realized what the film was and [there was] a lot of discussion of rights. It was a whole thing.

In terms of how this is all happening around Anna Sui, did you ever see your father ever have any relationship with fashion? Because ultimately, you could say that this film became part of the fashion world, in that way.

No, I mean, he had a relationship with Anna because they were neighbors, they were friends. My dad, I would say, was very anti-fashion. Not in that he didn’t — he never knew what he was wearing, y’know? His outfit was — my mom would usually dress him, but he had safari jackets that he would wear, that was kind of his fashion. And hats, and he’d have a cigar. But Anna kind of, y’know, told him about what she wanted to do in terms of the fashion of the film and how important it was to her. But he wasn’t a fashionista by any stretch of the imagination. He appreciated Anna and her kind of eye for [it], and liked her style. 

Festival! Documentary

When did you start working with your dad? You worked on a few of his films.

Yeah, I started working with him when I was right out of college. I worked at MLF Productions, which is on 44th and 9th Avenue. I worked there for two or three years as an assistant editor. I worked — I’m trying to think of the first one — on a Jimi Hendrix film.

From the Isle of Wight, I believe.

Yeah, I worked on some of the Isle of Wight films with my dad.

Did that just happen naturally, or did you actively get into it?

Yeah, I mean, he didn’t force me into it, but I loved hearing the discussions, y’know, around the dinner table of what he was talking about and thinking about and so, he kind of encouraged me like that. 

Now that its 52 years later, what do you think, for you, the legacy of Festival! is? 

NL: I mean, look, every time I see the film, I’m blown away by it. It’s very emotional — my dad’s only been gone a couple of years, y’know. But I appreciate him as much in death as I do in life. And I mean, when I see something — a work of art like that, y’know, as somebody who’s trying to do these kind of things, it’s always inspirational. It’s also daunting, because I mean, I don’t think there’s such [a] thing as a perfect work of art, but for me, again I’m biased, but if there’s a better music documentary out there, I’d like to see it. In terms of what they’re trying to do, the themes that they’re trying to touch on, and the way they did it, without literally saying it. Y’know, In today’s day in age, there would be lower thirds explaining who the artists were…

Talking heads…

There would be talking heads, hitting you over the head with what these themes are. And I think the film touches on a moment in time, a movement, y’know, without saying it literally, and kind of encapsulates these people, what young people were trying to do in the 60s, y’know, and how it led to the later part of the 60s. And you see these, you see it in everybody aspiring to make music and love music. Everything about it blows my mind. Y’know, the scenes with Joan Baez, just — you wouldn’t see that in an artist today. Y’know what I mean? Just her knowledge of what’s going on, y’know, her humanity towards her fans, and understanding, her self-consciousness about fame, that stuff blows me away. Of course the [Mike] Bloomfield and Son House stuff, that segment always blows me away. It’s, y’know, it’s a famous documented moment. There’s so many moments like that to me, where I just see them — little bits of editing that are so powerful. Y’know, the fact that right after “Maggie’s Farm,” [Dylan] just has like a fife and drum playing, and to me, it’s just as powerful, y’know what I mean? Just — there’s been so much made about that moment, y’know, “Maggie’s Farm” and when Dylan went electric, and then there’s this other incredible piece of music right after it, that, to me, is just as good, and just as powerful, and I think that’s kind of what the film’s trying to say in some way. 

Festival! is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Criterion. “The World of Anna Sui” and its supplementary screening series, “Sui Screens,” continues until February 2020 For more information, visit madmuseum.org. 

Bill Bria (@billbria) is a writer, actor, songwriter and comedian. ‘Sam & Bill Are Huge,’ his 2017 comedy music album with partner Sam Haft, reached #1 on an Amazon Best Sellers list, and the duo maintains an active YouTube channel and plays regularly all across the country. Bill‘s acting credits include an episode of HBO’s ‘Boardwalk Empire’ and a featured parts in Netflix’s ‘Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’ and CBS’ ‘Instinct.’ His film writing can also be seen at Crooked Marquee as well as his own website. Bill lives in New York City.

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