Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Found Weekend

A quarter century too late to make him rich or famous, Murray Lerner's Message to Love: The Isle of Wight Festival 1970, at the Film Forum, joins three earlier documentaries of the '60s in viewing that vast, vague decade and concept through the metaphor of the rock festival: D.A. Pennebaker's Monterey Pop, Michael Wadleigh's Woodstock, and the Maysles Brothers and Charlotte Zwerin's Gimme Shelter. As with Woodstock--but not Monterey Pop, which as the most utopian of these films had damn well better make good on the pleasures it promises, or Gimme Shelter, powered by a band that has always made antiutopian pleasure its specialty--the music that's supposed to sell the flick isn't so hot. Instead, like all the others, Message to Love is carried by an argument that's both persuasive and partial, a nod to entertainment value that's truer to the moment it hit the theatres than the occasion it represents.

In Monterey Pop, the music and its 50,000 or 90,000 celebrants are like a wonderful secret--wonderful because even though everyone knows about it, it still delivers the thrill of discovery. Unveiled in 1968, Pennebaker's vision of the 1967 event was instrumental in convincing potential organizers and participants that music was the healthiest way to crystallize the energy of a counterculture that by then seemed both blessedly inevitable and dangerously embattled. Poof, Woodstock--only before Wadleigh's edit was off the table there was also the anti-Woodstock, Altamont. One reason Woodstock is wryer than Monterey Pop is that the counterculture constituency was no longer gullible enough to buy its own peace-and-love bullshit uncut--by 1970, the myth of the '60s had taken on a layer of the protective irony that had long proven useful shtick for Zen gurus and Yippie troublemakers alike. Now as then, the film is a better advertisement for the fans than for the music that brought them together, most engaging when it focuses on its chosen cross-section of Woodstock Nation's 300,000 or 500,000 fools--sometimes wise or sainted, always self-righteous/self-deluded/self-whatever. But it was too hip and funny to be accused of spreading the false rumor that any such gathering could last longer than a found weekend.

Not that a little irony was enough to discourage a new bunch of fools in Great Britain, where neither of the counterculture's preconditions, postwar affluence and the ideology of classlessness, were ever as prevalent as they were here. And so the 1970 Isle of Wight festival--the third annual, as Lerner fails to indicate--attracted another 300,000 or 500,000 longhairs, a conflux directly inspired, as then 19-year-old underground journalist Charles Shaar Murray's U.K. review of Message to Love recalls, by Wadleigh's just-released depiction of "a rural idyll of sex without jealousy or disease, dope without addiction or bad trips, and `breakfast in bed for 500,000.'" Looking back, however, Lerner has no room for Wadleigh's cross-section. His fan interviews are all with guys (no gals) who--whether they come off scary or goofy, addled or enlightened--share a sense of absolute entitlement that dovetails thematically with the tension between money-minded bizzers and free-everything radicals that drives the film. There's not much suggestion of what listening to music in an immense company of like-minded souls might have been like for the hippies, yobs, and/or rock and roll fans whose trek to this Victorian artists' haven turned modern tourist trap occasioned all the rabble-rousing and behind-the-scenes machinations.

This is less a criticism than an observation. The film is fine fun the way Lerner constructed it, as a basically comic critique of the two historical forces that can be said to have battled over the aforementioned preconditions, the more material of which was just then disappearing from the face of the earth as our industrialized standard of living stopped rising. If you miss it, Columbia/Legacy's two-CD soundtrack provides an excellent taste of how stupid the festival's "absolutely mind-boggling list of superstar artists!" could be. Three weeks from death, Jimi Hendrix introduces a famously lackluster set by reporting that he just woke up. Joni Mitchell demonstrates her cultural superiority by holding forth about Hopis and tourists. Kris Kristofferson announces, "We're gonna do two more in spite of anything except rifle fire," then skulks off after one. Emerson, Lake & Palmer are ELP and vice versa. And the inimitable Joan Baez explains how the radicals' demand for free admission responds to "an evil stinking rotten world," only: "I am not going to be forced into giving a free concert because they insist on me giving a free concert. That doesn't make sense either."

The soundtrack also makes clear that the artists have nothing on the Brit bikers, French anarchists, and American world travelers of Desolation Row, as the ultimately victorious nonpaying encampment outside the festival's galvanized-steel fence was officially dubbed, much less the three promoters, who say such things as, "We put this festival on, you bastards, with a lot of love, and if you want to break our walls down and you want to destroy it, well, you go to hell," and, even better, "We have a fire on stage. If there's any firemen anywhere who can help us put the fire out as soon as possible . . . " But both sides should really be seen as well as heard--the wild-eyed rads so self-whatever they can conceive no reality beyond their proximity to the stage, the foppish promoters striving wanly to convince the audience, the camera, and themselves that all they want is to do a little good in the world.

The Maysles' dystopian Altamont movie, the class of the field intellectually (and visually) as well as musically, emphasized the chasm between the artists and the audience who under the new countercultural dispensation were supposed to be their equals. This was an essential point at the time, perfect for a band so charismatic it could carry a whole movie and so cynical that its distance from its fans and everything else was already an established part of its act. A quarter century later, Lerner, understandably, goes for a more analytic, historical approach. So he schematizes hippiedom's assumed failures and hypocrisies into a doomed conflict between me-first boomers and the implacable forces of capital, with both sides more wrong than right. His parable is persuasive because in broad outline it's undeniable and because it's peopled with mind-boggling buffoons. But it's partial as well--not just because it ignores the innocents in the middle, many of whom are assuredly growing up or experiencing some measly measure of liberation despite the contradictions, but because in the end the buffoons are too inconsequential to symbolize much. The anonymous radicals are lost to history, while the promoters, Ray and Ron Falk and Ricky Farr, lack even the paltry mythic resonance of John Phillips, Mike Lang, and Melvin Belli, who personify power in the other movies.

Lerner, in fact, doesn't bother to provide their last names, which I obtained from Isle of Wight native Mike Plumbley, coauthor of the self-published Isle of Wight Rock: A Music Anthology (Isle of Wight Rock Archives, Palmer's Forge, Newport Road, Niton, Isle of Wight, U.K.). Always clueless about English accents, I'd assumed the Falks were the same kind of hapless rich kids who backed so many other mysterious '60s ventures, but in fact they were local printers whose 1968 festival featured Jefferson Airplane raising funds for a swimming pool that somehow never got built and whose much larger 1969 do, headlined by a famously lackluster Bob Dylan, seeded number three. Although many acts didn't get paid, there are observers who believe the Falks sold a lot more of those 3 tickets they're forever whining about (at a time when a week in a bedsit cost 4) than they claimed--including, Plumbley reports, an employee who says he went off to print more as late as Saturday night. Hmmm. As for imported biz pro and fatuous majordomo Farr, the successful music career attributed to him in Lerner's credits apparently ended up in an L.A. sound equipment company.

Since it took poor Lerner 26 years to complete what was clearly a labor of pride and love--can you imagine what getting the permissions must have been like?--I'd never suggest he should have made a different movie. But wouldn't it be fun to follow the money in a sequel?

Village Voice, Jan. 14, 1997