Toronto Rock & Roll Revival 1969
Things are literally gloomy here at Varsity Stadium in Toronto. It is ten p.m. Friday, fourteen hours before the Toronto Rock & Roll Revival is to begin, and about half the Leacock Pennebaker people are trudging around the stage looking dejectedly at their light meters. Jim Desmond, one of the cameramen, has described the stage, which is graced by a broad-striped blue-and-white canopy that threatens to sail off with the first good gust of wind, as a Polish army reviewing stand, but it is classy compared to the lights. Two high-power carbon-beam super-troupers are set at the farthest reaches of the grandstand; they ought to be closer in, on towers, but towers can be climbed, towers topple, towers are a pain in the ass, and Brower Associates, the producers, do not want to be liable. There are also a few side and backing lights and an absurd set of footlights which D.A. Pennebaker has ordered in desperation, at a cost of a thousand dollars, earlier that afternoon. No one uses footlights any more, but Pennebaker, who can convince himself of anything when he is hot for a project, has reasoned that old guys like Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard will dig them. Now it is clear that footlights will make no significant difference in photons and furthermore will be difficult to shoot over. What a bush operation. There were none of these problems at Monterey, where the Leacock Pennebaker team spent almost a week preparing to film Monterey Pop--Pennebaker had not even heard of the Toronto Rock & Roll Revival until nine days before it took place--and where he had never even worried about the lights, because with a hip professional like Chip Monck in charge, available light is always sufficient for his purposes. Brower Associates had promised to hire Monck, but due to past indiscretions related to the care and feeding of his own head, Monck could not cross the border. His replacement, a middle-aged local, takes care of his head with a distinguished-looking crewcut.
For most of the evening the stage--but also, unfortunately, the remainder of the stadium--has been illuminated by the big old incandescent lights which are ordinarily used for after-dark athletics. Pennebaker, figuring that tomorrow's audience will not appreciate any reminder of football, has finally succeeded in turning them off, and now things look even gloomier. While Pennebaker stands barefoot in the dewy grass and tries to calculate the background glare, which is considerable, Bob Neuwirth, who was Bob Dylan's road manager when Pennebaker shot Don't Look Back and who functions in this company as cameraman, troubleshooter and Jim Desmond's comedy partner, delivers an obloquy on the general subject of the Toronto Rock & Roll Revival, the emblem of which is imprinted on the T-shirts that he and Desmond and several others have ripped off earlier and are now wearing. Neuwirth foresees doom. Not only will all the night footage print up the same shade of blue-black, but the flimsy snow fences that define the stage and press areas will go down in the stampede as Jim Morrison climaxes the show, and so, soon thereafter, will any cameraman foolish enough to remain on the makeshift runway. Instead of a film we will have a funeral.
It is an impressive performance, Molly (Mrs. Donald) McMullin, twenty-five-year old wife of Leacock Pennebaker's board chairman, captures it for the eight-mm synch-sound film she is filming about the filming of this film. For a few minutes everyone stands around depressed. Then there is a bustling noise on the stairs, some voices--"Maybe he's up there"--and three men troop up. Surrounded by all these scruffy Toronto Rock & Roll Revival T-shirts, they look like the essence of big money with-it slick. The first wears a pink shirt and wide tie with a double-breasted suit; his dark hair is cut ad-agency mod and he has thick-rimmed glasses. The second, somewhat shorter, wears a conventional blue suit and white shirt with no tie and has had his blond hair trimmed in apparent emulation of Jean Seberg in Breathless. The third is a somehow husky big-seeming man in a subdued pinstripe and Cosa Nostra razor cut; he continually hits on his cigarette in deep, swift tokes. Pink Shirt asks where Mr. Pennebaker might be found. When someone indicates the darkness below, the three men regroup smartly and troop back down behind the stage, then march up front. Most of the Leacock Pennebaker crew follows in their wake.
Pennebaker is forty-four but looks about thirty-five. He has recently grown a full red beard and has on an old sweater and his sailing jeans, which are worn to proper sun-bleached blue. Although the natural affability of his boyish face is virtually unchanged, he does appear startled. The entire party, totaling perhaps ten, stands in nervous formation around Pink Shirt, who commences to address Pennebaker.
"Mr. Pennebaker, my name is Mr. Sachter and this"--indicating Jean Seberg--"is Mr. Eaton and this"--indicating Hit Man--"is Mr. Zackheim. We are here protecting the interests of Brower Associates. We know that you have spent all day here preparing to film this festival and we feel it is only fair to warn you that as of this moment you will not be permitted to do so. We have been on the phone all day with Mr. McMullin and Mr. Hansen in New York--neither Mr. McMullin nor Mr. Hansen has yet arrived in Toronto, is that correct--"and they have made certain financial commitments which they have not met . . ."
"Which is not to say," Eaton puts in conciliatorily, "that they're not going to meet them."
". . . which is not to say," Sachter sweeps on, "that they're not going to meet them. We must insist that unless these commitments are met you will not be permitted to shoot one foot of film at this festival, and we would suggest that it is in your own best interest to contact Mr. McMullin and Mr. Hansen and make this clear to them, make it clear that unless they meet their commitments before the Festival begins there will be no film."
Pennebaker, who is normally articulate, not to say glib, responds with an inspired mumble to the effect that he is only an ignorant filmmaker who tries not to think about these arcane matters.
"And now," Sachter says, "what seems to be the trouble with the lights?"
After a few minutes of consultation with Sachter, most of the Leacock Pennebaker team--the exceptions are Desmond and Neuwirth, who elect to booze it up with the crewcut light man--departs for Chinese food and some sleep. Pennebaker is destined to stay up most of the night dismantling a defective camera. Molly McMullin has shot most of the scene with Sachter from the stage, but because of the lights she is unlikely to get anything.
Eight days before, on a sunny Thursday afternoon, about half the corporate intelligence of Leacock Pennebaker, Inc., was concentrated in a single room on West 45th Street in New York City, where the firm rents two floors of a small office building. The subject of this conference was the proper way to fold a mailing poster. Pennebaker's faithful companion, photographer Kate Taylor, had collaged the poster from stills, and Pennebaker wanted it to be just right--the address had to be situated so that the poster looked good spread out in a theatrical display box and it had to catch the eye as it was being unfolded. Kate made fuzzy copies on the normally otiose Xerox machine, remnant of an abortive McMullin scheme to get the corporation into publishing filmscripts, and everyone sat around folding them as Pennebaker figured the proportions. Peter Hansen, executive vice-president in charge of bothersome detail, was there, and so was the sixteen-mm distribution department, a young Boston University graduate named Susanna Cuyler who would eventually be in charge of getting the posters out. Susanna also answered the phone when things got busy; in fact, she answered the phone when things weren't busy. Things hadn't been busy since the flurry of activity surrounding the release of Monterey Pop and the peregrinations of Jean-Luc Godard well before she was hired in April. Things were so slack that one valued assistant, Mary Lampson, had recently been farmed out in an economy-charity move a rival company which was actually making a film. Other cogs in the Leacock Pennebaker machine were also absent from the discussion. Ricky Leacock, the second half of the creative department, was in Atlanta, where he was handling the camera on a Bell Telephone commercial which an old protégée was putting together. Thad Holt, the former Deputy Under Secretary of the Army who was the corporation's president and legal advisor, was up in his office doing whatever he did in his office. And David McMullin was out buying a shirt.
The phone rang and Susanna answered. She cupped her hand over the receiver and spoke to the room.
"It's somebody up in Toronto who wants you to film a rock festival."
There were a few pained looks but Hansen got on the phone. He talked for a few minutes and then interrupted Penny's computations to turn the phone over to him. Penny displayed his everyday buoyant con, cautiously optimistic, listening a lot and asking questions.
"You've got Jerry Lee Lewis, huh? . . . Is it gonna be indoors? . . . How about lights? . . . Lighting for everything, huh? . . . How many people do you think the place will hold? . . . Well, you've got an advance sale, how many . . . There's a distribution problem here, you understand. We'll be competing against similar films . . . Yes, I know you've got the Doors, but . . . Look, we're interested but it's only eight days notice. Let me talk to my people and we'll call you back. . . . Fine."
Once off the phone he sounded less intrigued, though he clearly regarded Brower's proposition as more enticing than earlier offers he had received from other rock festival producers--including a feeler from Woodstock Venture--to film their extravaganzas. The success of Leacock Pennebaker's Monterey Pop, a major hit even though it didn't appear until a year-and-a-half after the Monterey Pop Festival took place, had inspired a whole new cavalcade of golden dreams in the hearts of rock entrepreneurs everywhere, especially those who had come to realize that financial success in the festival business was never a surety. What they all did their best to overlook, however, was the uniqueness of Monterey. In terms of talent assembled, attendant vibrations and sheer primacy Monterey had been the archetypal festival, one of the cultural events of the decade, and as such it was box office. What's more, the film had been backed, theoretically at least, by ABC, and was not intended for theatrical release. Only when the final version was rejected by the network and the filmmakers found themselves out $76,000 in shooting costs with only the film itself as an asset did distribution become legally feasible. Even then there were difficulties--some performers had never signed releases and neither had any song publishers, and ABC's equity had to be repaid--and only because Leacock Pennebaker made distribution fees over and above its reimbursement for shooting expenses did the film ever reach the public.
The typical festival promoter had an overriding interest in his profits. He saw only the grosses in Variety and so demanded front money and a share of the net from prospective filmmakers, most of whom were soon prospecting elsewhere. In addition, Pennebaker had a built-in objection to offers like Brower's--he didn't really think any pop festival was worth his effort. He had already done his festival film, a classic, and anyway, the fashionable prejudice of New York culturati for the summer of 1969 held that rock was getting boring, taking itself too seriously, and so forth. Old-time rock and roll, on the other hand, had developed a certain cachet. Pennebaker was turned on by the Toronto offer because by emphasizing resurrected stars like Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Bo Diddley and Jerry Lee Lewis it would avoid the look of a repeat. But he was also turned on because he dug those guys. Not that the Rock & Roll Revival was ideal. Such an event had often been discussed but never staged, largely because no one believed it would draw, and the Toronto promoters had done a good job of hedging their bets. Not only were many accessible Fifties performers--Fats Domino, the Everly Brothers, the Coasters--missing from the artist roster, but many inappropriate modern groups had been tacked on, and the headline attraction was not Elvis Presley (a financial impossibility, of course) but the Doors, who epitomized all the decadence observers like Pennebaker felt in contemporary rock. Despite these drawbacks, however, Pennebaker's mind began to click almost audibly as soon as he got off the plane. He had been dormant for months, traveling in Europe and spending weeks on his boat. Now he was excited.
Finally, what caused his excitement was the prospect of making a quick buck. He was not overwhelmed by the subject, but it was good enough, and after ten years of making documentaries he had learned not to be too choosy. His scheme was to sell Leacock Pennebaker's interest in the film outright in return for a flat profit. No royalties, no gross, no hassles, no wheeling and dealing. Just raise a hundred thousand dollars and shoot the film for fifty. The ideal investor would be a theater chain with many outlets in the South, where old-time rock and roll was still commercial; they could run the hell out of it and eventually they'd have to make their money back. Very neat, of course, but if it were that easy a lot of films would be financed by distributors and theater owners, and they aren't. With Hansen, the only man in the room wearing a tie, providing his usual Nordic cool, less fanciful possibilities were discussed. With all those black performers, television was deemed unlikely but worth trying--ABC had been wrong about Monterey Pop and might not want to take that risk again. Then Pennebaker recalled a Texas distributor who had cashed in with Monterey Pop and loved the Doors as well.
"If we could just raise fifty grand . . ." he mused.
"Wouldn't even cover us, Penny," Hansen said.
"Well, if they took care of all the talent--talent costs twenty thousand. Whatchacallhim could take care of all the advertising and distribution. Sure, let him have the distribution in his area, we'll subdistribute if he wants. Texas guarantees us our fifty grand and Toronto gets twenty-five per cent with them paying the talent, including the Doors, who are certainly gonna want a percentage. Now what does that leave us? Fifteen thousand dollars for film and processing, our total costs are twenty grand with travel expenses."
"Penny," Hansen said wearily, "where are we going to get twenty grand? I don't think Beiersdorf will even go in for that much."
"Well," Pennebaker said, "call him and find out."
In "Film-Making at Leacock Pennebaker," a handsome twelve-page booklet for would-be investors, Richard Leacock and D.A. Pennebaker, the "founders and senior vice-presidents" of the company, are listed under "The Film-Makers," while David McMullin, Thaddeus Holt and Peter Hansen are "The Management." A responsible arrangement, it reads well, but that sharp delineation of art and commerce does less justice to the Leacock Pennebaker spirit than the almost slick assurance with which it is presented. Every film artist is of necessity a businessman and most of the businessmen in film like to think of themselves as creators. McMullin has an English degree from Oxford and thought seriously about writing-painting-filmmaking before he became a Wall Street securities salesman, and Hansen, who since McMullin lured him to the firm in mid-1967 has gradually been ceded all of its less glamorous administrative functions, holds an M.A. in cinema and is an experienced script writer and film editor. Hansen says he prefers "running a small and disorderly company" to so-called creative work on bad movies, but McMullin still wants to be an artist: Leacock Pennebaker owns the rights to a novel, Riddle of the Sands, which McMullin hopes eventually to direct as a film. Both of the "Film-Makers," on the other hand, have scientific backgrounds: Leacock majored in physics at Harvard and Pennebaker, whose father, John Paul Pennebaker, was one of the first successful color still photographers, studied at M.I.T. before getting an engineering degree from Yale.
Leacock, however, always knew he wanted to make movies--he had already shot "the definitive film on growing bananas" on his father's plantation in the Canary Islands when he was fourteen--and he studied science with that in mind: "I didn't want to be bamboozled by technicians. Technicians tend to tell you that you can't do this and you can't do that and of course you can." After getting out of college in 1939, Leacock did general work--editing, camera, lighting--with Charles Corvin's Frontier Films, and when the war broke out entered the Signal Corps as a private, where he worked in both still and moving photography. In 1945 the great genius of documentary, Robert Flaherty, whom he had known casually as a school boy, hired him as the cameraman for The Louisiana Story without ever having seen his work. His reputation secure, if not always his paycheck, Leacock has been making films ever since.
Pennebaker's history is more mixed. Although he had thoughts of becoming a writer and has written professionally, he got a job designing electric power stations in Texas immediately after his graduation from Yale in 1947. That lasted six months. Then he started his own firm, Electronics Engineering. Operating out of a coal-stove loft on Murray Street in New York, Pennebaker and seven or eight employees manufactured an amplifier and the first computerized airline reservation system. But even though Pennebaker's compulsive energy served him well in business, he found himself bored and dissatisfied. After five years he shut down and spent a year writing and painting. He met Francis Thompson, the painter and filmmaker who took ten years to complete an abstract fifteen-minute film called New York, New York. Pennebaker went out shooting with Thomson on weekends and worked for a documentary maker named Julien Bryan. He also shot and edited an impressionistic color short, Daybreak Express, which owes much in mood to New York, New York. Then he worked in advertising for a year and a half and quit that.
Although Daybreak Express was unreleased, it was shown privately and attracted attention, and gradually Pennebaker came to think of himself as a filmmaker. Through a variety of film jobs--editing autobiographical footage by Gypsy Rose Lee, traveling the country shooting loops for the Brussels World's Fair, filming the American Exhibition in Moscow in 1959--he gradually became convinced that impressionism and visualism were not enough. That is, he discovered the elementary magic of film, its ability to simulate reality, and unlike the underground film poets who were beginning to proliferate in New York, he believed the aural reality was as honorable as the visual. This conclusion, with its tendency to subjugate form to content, led him inexorably to documentary and cinema verite. By this time Pennebaker had set up an equipment-sharing company called Filmakers for some like-minded acquaintances--Willard Van Dyke, who now runs the film program at the Museum of Modern Art; Shirley Clarke, who later directed The Connection, The Cool World and Portrait of Jason; Al Maysles, maker of renowned but unreleased portraits of the Beatles and Joseph E. Levine as well as the cinema verite feature Salesman; and Ricky Leacock, who had already shot several award-winning television films. One day, Leacock and two helpers lugged in an enormous cable-connected synch-sound rig and Pennebaker decided to try it. Suddenly, everything he had been thinking about fell into place. "I can remember still, I was shooting Leonard Bernstein playing the piano in a hall, and I suddenly realized that it was more than just having a picture of his hands at the same time as you have the sound of the notes, that you were getting something that would be absolutely persuasive that at that instant that was all you were getting, that's where you were, that it wasn't happening in an editing room or somewhere else--bang, you were transmitting that exact instant somewhere."
The transmission of exact audiovisual instants is a complex technological achievement because it is so difficult to make sound correspond to action: tape stretches, power sources vary, motors run slightly off cycle. Unless audio and visual recorders run synchronously, the result is the mild havoc of voices when no lips are moving and sometimes even doors that slam silently. In the Fifties, all existing synchronous systems were expensive and unwieldy. This didn't bother Hollywood, where both money and situations could be fabricated. But the documentary makers had only one chance and even less money.
Ricky Leacock came to see the orchestra rehearsal, requiring a system with excellent sound and silent, highly mobile machines unconnected by any cables, as a classic example of the physical problem. In the late fifties, many filmmakers worked this problem to simultaneous solutions involving a pulse which regulated both components. With Leacock providing some theory and Pennebaker applying his engineering skill the two designed a system based on the Accutron watch, which generated a sixty-cycle pulse accurate to four millionths of a second. Even today it is possible to find one or two old Auricons with the watch imbedded in the casing in the Leacock Pennebaker equipment room.
Around 1960, that other technical problem, money, also seemed to be near solution. When Time-Life decided to go heavily into television at the turn of the decade, they backed a filmmaking firm headed by Robert Drew. Drew, a Life staffer, had gone to Harvard on a Nieman fellowship in 1955, where he took a year to conclude that television documentaries were dull because they relied on word logic rather than visual story-telling. He envisioned a vast filmmaking complex run on vast television money and recording every aspect of our reality. At its peak, Drew Associates had seventy-five employees and was turning out of an hour-long documentary every month. Leacock was Drew's director of filmmaking because, as Drew himself puts it: "His tradition was so strong. He had this great regard for what really existed that came right from Flaherty. He was a photographer and a philosopher and a guiding light." Pennebaker, on the other hand, concentrated on technical matters, hiring personnel and devising equipment. Their most famous film of this period was Primary, a study of the 1960 Kennedy-Humphrey campaign in Wisconsin.
After three years and many films--on Cuba, the Indianapolis 500, Nehru, Jane Fonda, the death penalty--things at Drew had become quite tense, mostly because the public's appetite for television documentary was neither as voracious nor as adventurous as he had hoped. Drew's tastes were middlebrow--he always opted for narration and music, which Leacock and Pennebaker had discovered were often unnecessary--but he did have to sell his films. Pennebaker probably acknowledges this more readily in retrospect than he did at the time, but in any case Drew wasn't selling his films and Pennebaker just decided that it wasn't worth the trouble. By April, 1963, he was ready to leave, but he stayed on until the filming of Crisis, during which Pennebaker somehow got to sit in on actual presidential conferences concerning the University of Alabama desegregation confrontation. Pennebaker still complains about how badly that footage was bowdlerized by Drew, who transformed the film from a unique document into a paean to JFK. That was when he really quit. Leacock did the same a few months later, and after trying to set up his own firm joined Pennebaker. Because of contractual limitations, the two documentarists had to scramble for a year, renting equipment and working in Europe and even doing non-film work, although during that time Leacock managed to make what may be his best film, a thirty-minute treatment of the Fischer quintuplets called Happy Mother's Day. The two films, Crisis and Happy Mother's Day, illustrate how different cinema verite sensibilities can be. For Pennebaker, reality is spectacular, so that a real high-echelon political powwow, for-God's-sake history, seems very real indeed. But for Leacock news value and historicity are often excuses for getting at the little details of the way normal people live. He seems to distrust the whole news motive. Just because Mrs. Fischer has had celebrity thrust upon her, is famous and newsworthy by a freakish accident, Leacock responds, and the resulting film is suffused with a warmth for which Pennebaker could only substitute energy.
The division of labor at Leacock Pennebaker was clear: Pennebaker ran the business in return for the association with Leacock, who was still just as Robert Drew described him, "a photographer and a philosopher and a guiding light." Leacock was a genius with sound, one of the first to use it as the organizing principle for a scene. He was a great cameraman, with an exceptionally delicate sense of detail and uncanny movement. But above all he was loved. With his deeply lined face, his English courtesy, and his general air of urbane and affectionate resignation, Leacock was a classic artistic type. Pennebaker was only a colorful go-getter.
Then Albert Grossman walked in and asked Leacock if he wanted to make a film about Bob Dylan. Leacock did not respond to the name. Don't Look Back was eventually shot by Pennebaker at his own expense--Columbia Records had turned down a half interest for $5,000--during Dylan's one-month tour of England in 1965. Largely due to Grossman's fabled greed, it was not released until two years later, but its success was a drastic change. Pennebaker had begun to gather his own prestige. He shot another film with Dylan--it was never released--and on the word-of-mouth reputation of Don't Look Back was invited to film the Monterey Pop Festival. Norman Mailer took him on as a cameraman. Pennebaker's name was rapidly becoming synonymous with the respectable avant-garde.
Especially in the past few years, an obvious though not especially bitter rift has opened between the two partners. Perhaps because he has never made a feature film, Leacock gets much less work than a craftsman of his caliber deserves, and he is morose about it. He takes a somewhat jaundiced view of the Godard films his firm distributes because they do not suit his resolutely classical view of the distinction between truth and fiction, and he seems to dislike Mailer's films, which he has helped shoot, for the same reason. Pennebaker is a "Film-Maker" on the same page as Leacock now, and although Leacock's perspective is far too acute for him to begrudge Pennebaker his success, his resignation does occasionally turn into gentle backbiting.
On the whole, Pennebaker's filmmaking rivals have stuck to their original judgment. One enthusiastic young editor says: "Leacock is a beautiful, gracious, deeply romantic person with an open approach to his art. There's no one who can shoot like him, and there's no one who can handle himself with people that way. He's a tragic figure. Pennebaker's just a hustler." But as even the young man, not to mention Leacock, is aware, hustling is part of making movies. Pennebaker is often put down a shallow, negative, a celebrity hound, a trafficker in outworn hip. He has been known to lose his affability around people he doesn't need, and Bob Dylan once described him, amid the difficulties of the second film, as "an ugly man who's going to be making ugly pop films for the rest of his ugly days." Indeed, his knowledge of pop music, with which his success is interwoven, is not too deep, and he shows a taste for obvious experiments, such as the sequence in Monterey Pop in which Otis Redding is whited out by a light glaring directly into the lens. He shoots impulsively and is reputed to waste a lot of film. But Don't Look Back has to be one of the most extraordinary non-fiction films ever made. Frenetic yet skillfully paced, unromantic but not disrespectful about its subject, it probably gets a little closer to Dylan than any artist so careful of his identity would prefer. No wonder Bobby thinks Pennebaker is ugly. He has learned that everybody is, sometimes.
It was around twelve thirty on the day following Brower's offer, a Friday. Pennebaker had arrived at around eleven and was killing time in Leacock's office until two, when he and Kate expected to catch a ride out to the Hamptons, where a Leacock Pennebaker festival was scheduled. Then he remembered Toronto. He buzzed Hansen, who reported that a call was in at ABC and that Beiersdorf in Texas had suggested they approach the head of United Artists theaters in San Francisco, Marshall Naify. Pennebaker dialed ABC, where he was shunted from one hold to another; as he sat in telephonic limbo he mused about the value of getting up in the morning. Finally he learned that his contact was at lunch. Pennebaker did reach Naify, who seemed skeptical. He was still running down other possibilities when Naify called back and evinced more interest. Penny and Kate took the train to the Hamptons.
Over the weekend Pennebaker and Hansen briefed McMullin and there was more conversation with Brower. Most of Monday was spent waiting for Naify. Sometime after six, McMullin, looking unkempt as usual with his feet on the desk and the package from Europe lying unopened near his chair, as it had for two weeks, dialed 0-415-843-1487. The New York operator intercepted but when San Francisco answered McMullin took over. "Yes, this is a person-to-person call to Mr. Naify . . . Oh you do? . . . they're brothers . . . Dear, I don't know, let's see, is it . . . Marshall? . . . Yes, try Marshall Naify." A longer pause. "Hello, can I speak to Mr. Naify, this is David McMullin at Leacock Pennebaker."
By now it was obvious that Pennebaker's scheme had been chimera. Naify might buy, but there would be no flat profit and a lot of hassle. Soon McMullin was deep into the usual double-talk about front money and distributor's advances and special bank accounts. Unlike Pennebaker, who is really glib, McMullin only seems to be glib. His sentences often wander away from him, so that even though his phrases are cogent he ends up saying nothing, albeit at great length and dazzling velocity. This touch of blather serves him well in negotiation, where he tends to shift premises without notice. As he talked with Naify, the projected cost of the film kept moving around. It was clear that Leacock Pennebaker would have to pay the talent and give Brower some cash, so that Pennebaker's heedlessly optimistic figure of $20,000 had become completely absurd. But what was a realistic estimate? The $50,000 that had been talked around the office? The $100,000 or more that McMullin was predicting on the phone? In between? Less than fifty? All that was certain was that McMullin was interested in credibility, not accuracy, and that Naify, who was stubbornly remaining below McMullin's lowest offers, didn't believe him.
It must be his transparent palavering, combined with his equally transparent longing to be hip and famous, that earns McMullin a perhaps unwarranted contempt around the independent film community in New York. McMullin had already been involved in an unsuccessful stock battle for Paramount Pictures and a temporary takeover of the Schine theater chain when he met Pennebaker through Albert Grossman in 1966. He was already negotiating with Grossman over Don't Look Back when be bought a one-third interest in the corporation for $50,000 in December of that year. He joined officially the following spring. About that time, Leacock Pennebaker expanded into a two-floor operation. On the ninth floor was the old filmmaking setup: the custom-built sound-filming systems, the Pennebaker-designed screening room, the interlock sound transfer equipment, the more conventional sound and editing rooms. Upstairs was management and bookkeeping and distribution.
Just as there is a perceptible schism between Leacock and Pennebaker, so there is a perceptible schism between the two floors. Ever since Drew, Pennebaker has been hiring kids with a lust to learn about film and paying them fifty or, lately, seventy-five dollars a week to do what they're told. Probably because both Leacock and Pennebaker have always moved in fashionable circles, starting even before Harvard and Yale, these hirelings have naturally tended to come from well-to-do families, and considering the New York locale a remarkable number of them have been Anglo-Saxon Protestants. After nine years, they are spread throughout the New York film industry, and on the whole they don't like businessmen in general and David McMullin in particular. One young editor, whose time at Leacock Pennebaker spanned the pre- and post-McMullin days, describes him bluntly: "David McMullin is full of shit. He's the big businessman, but they haven't been doing any fantastic business that I can see."
In a way this is true. In three years, the Chairman of the Board hasn't set one feature for his firm. Monterey Pop, the camera work with Norman Mailer, even Toronto--all have come to Pennebaker without much help from McMullin. The one exception involved Jean-Luc Godard, for whom McMullin broke a distribution bottleneck by releasing La Chinoise, with fair commercial success, early in 1968. Since then the firm has acquired other Godard films and shot two films about him--Two American Audiences, which intercuts footage from La Chinoise with Godard's discussion of the film with some N.Y.U. students, and 1 P.M. (One Parallel Movie) about the making of Godard's 1 A.M. (One American Movie). This is not to say that there haven't been other production possibilities. McMullin, for instance, had been working to finance an unconventional Leacock idea about a paranoid girl with Connaught, a firm in Philadelphia, though whether he would succeed was another question; he had failed before.
On the other hand, McMullin's Wall Street experience has given the company the king of potential that Pennebaker's sheer energy, even if it were combined with inclination, could not. His goal is to create a production/distribution complex that will begin to do for New York what the majors have done for Hollywood, though of course in a hip New York way. Because Pennebaker's name has been on some relatively prestigious and commercial films, many outsiders believe Leacock Pennebaker is already the fulfillment of this idea-whose-time-has-come, but even if the recent success of independent films like Easy Rider and The Endless Summer and the breakdown in old consumption patterns does indicate that the game is moving away from Hollywood, that doesn't mean it can't be bought back. In any case, McMullin has done well to keep Leacock Pennebaker solvent by selling forty-two per cent of its stock to a mutual funds company. He has also set up a relatively efficient distribution apparatus. Until Bruce Brown rented the Kips Bev in New York on very disadvantageous terms, then ran The Endless Summer there for over a year, theater owners were notoriously uneasy about letting their plants go to non-Hollywood distributors. Now things are better, although the actual number of domestic non-Hollywood successes remains small.
If Leacock Pennebaker is to become even as successful as Drew was in the early sixties, the continuing cooperation of outfits like United Artists Theaters will be crucial. The most attractive aspect of such an investment is its low cost. Because firms like Leacock Pennebaker operate without union restrictions and shoot in sixteen-mm they can put out a feature film for the cost of the costume on a big-budget Hollywood movie, and this was clearly one of the things that was attracting Naify. By Tuesday afternoon he had made a firm commitment to sign with Hansen on Thursday morning--he knew time was tight, but Wednesday was tied up--in San Francisco, where Leacock had already flown to film more of the telephone commercial. Thad Holt would go up to Toronto to deal with Brower the same day. Wally Heider, the Californian who recorded Monterey Pop, contracted to truck his gear to Toronto and do the Revival for $5,500 of Leacock Pennebaker's money.
As the prospect of making a film became more concrete, the mood of the office, which had been languid and slightly dyspeptic, changed completely. Pennebaker hired a camera crew and spent most of his time in the shop testing and altering equipment with his chief assistants, Mark Woodcock and Chris Dalrymple. The alterations were a typical whirlwind play. Both Don't Look Back and Monterey Pop were shot in sixteen-mm and blown up to thirty-five for theaters. Because sixteen film is shaped in the old 1.33/1 breadth-to-height ratio while most theater screens are 1.85/1, this meant not only additional grain problems but the loss of the top and bottom of the picture. By widening the gate on each of his cameras and using film with sprocket holes on only one side, Pennebaker could shoot at Toronto in what might be called Super-16, analogous to Kodak's Super-8, thus permitting a more representative wide-screen blowup. He spent most of Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday widening gates.
McMullin spent Wednesday alternately phoning Baltimore and arguing with Norman Mailer's associate, Buzz Farber. Farber was a few floors above working on the third Mailer film, Maidstone, which the Leacock Pennebaker crew shot amid much male chauvinism and biting of ears the summer before. McMullin had somehow committed Mailer to run the world premier--actually a kind of sneak preview--of Maidstone at a theater in Baltimore, and he hadn't done too efficient a job, because Mailer claimed he had never agreed in the first place. So first McMullin would call Baltimore and explain why they didn't really want Maidstone, it wasn't ready, yes he knew they had advertised, they didn't have interlock equipment, Mailer couldn't make it. Then he would go to Farber and yell about reneging on agreements, Baltimore would give them real audience reaction, irresponsible and cowardly. Finally Farber agreed to give McMullin Mailer's Beyond the Law, but Mailer wouldn't permit it. McMullin ended up driving to Baltimore with some films no one wanted to see and a lot of apologies.
That same night Hansen flew to San Francisco. At ten the next morning he made his way to Naify's penthouse, where he was greeted by the great man in his jogging clothes. Immediately he knew something was wrong; what had tied Naify up the previous day were talks with Warner Brothers about opening the Woodstock movie in United Artists' new Aquarius Theater. Two rock festival films, well, er, perhaps they could do business in the future. UA had nothing but respect, but . . . By 10:30 Hansen was on the phone to McMullin. McMullin called Holt in Toronto, but Holt decided to complete his deal regardless. Then McMullin gave the bad news to Pennebaker, who was still working on cameras. Pennebaker told him to get the money elsewhere and kept working. He was due in Toronto in less than nine hours.
It was about 2:00 in New York when McMullin got on the phone and stared calling his subdistributors, most of whom didn't know Chuck Berry from Pat Boone. Many were at lunch, but McMullin kept calling, suddenly titanic amid the confusion of incoming calls and outgoing calls and returning your calls and why don't you calls. By 3:30 Beiersdorf and Chuck Teitely from Chicago were each in for $5,000, and by 5:00 a friend of Beiersdorf's who had never dealt with McMullin had agreed to send $10,000 up to New York on nothing but his word. Suddenly, $20,000 was the shooting figure again. McMullin called Brower to say that he had enough money to shoot but might not be able to come up with the $15,000 advance with which Brower was supposed to be signing artists. Brower said no deal. Perhaps an hour later, Charley Vodicka, a crow-faced twenty-five-year old longhair who subbed for McMullin in Australia, and who was answering the phones now that all the girls had gone home, offered to put in $15,000. McMullin kept calling. Then at seven o'clock, Dick Burns of Connaught in Philadelphia called to say that his board was cool to the paranoid girl but liked Toronto. McMullin offered him a one-third interest for $50,000 and he took it. Pennebaker and Vodicka danced whooping around the room for a few minutes. Then they rounded up the rest of the crew, piled everything into a van, and drove to Kennedy Airport. McMullin had raised $85,000 form five separate sources in about five hours, and Pennebaker didn't have to do anything but tinker with his cameras and cheer him on.
John and Yoko were coming.
Are John and Yoko really coming? John and Yoko? John and Yoko and Eric Clapton? Come on. John and Yoko and Eric Clapton in Toronto? Well, yeah, why not? You know how John loves Chuck Berry. Get back to where you once belonged. That's Paul. Yeah, but remember "The Ballad of John and Yoko"? Very Chuck Berry. Never happen. Chuck Berry in Toronto, yes, he'll go anywhere for two thou, he comes here all the time. But John doesn't even have a visa. The promoters start these rumors themselves, you know. Builds the crowd.
But John and Yoko were really coming. Promoters do start these rumors themselves, and Pennebaker had been hearing them since Monday, from the promoters. For a while Mick Taylor, the newest Rolling Stone, was also reputed to be in the deal, which was supposedly happening because somebody's uncle was John Diefenbaker, who could get John his visa, thus rendering him . . . More bull from Brower Associates. By Friday, however, despite the hip skepticism of most of his crew, Pennebaker was demonstrating his old facility at believing the best. He had even started mongering the rumors himself. He didn't believe that John would play--maybe the Plastic Ono Band, with all those neo-dada amplifiers, but not John. Nevertheless, he would be there. Hmmm. Very commercial. And so Pennebaker's first act Friday was to charm Kodak in Toronto out of a passel of Instamatic cameras and Super-8 cartridges. The idea was to switch one on, point it for a moment at some celeb, then toss it end-over-end through the air and let the celeb shoot about three minutes of Super-8 for the first recorded eight-to-thirty-five commercial blowup. And the great thing, you see, was that John Lennon and Jim Morrison and Chuck Berry would be shooting his movie.
That was the way things looked from Varsity Stadium, where Pennebaker and his cohorts constructed a runway and figured out platform angles and stomped on the stage to make it break. In New York, where the Doors' manager, Bill Siddons, had already informed McMullin that no, he hadn't told Brower it would be difficult, he had told him it would be impossible, the tenth floor at Leacock Pennebaker wasn't so optimistic. The tenth floor was represented solely by Hansen, who had come back from California and was manning the office while McMullin dealt with Siddons and Connaught. Hansen flew up to Toronto that night and contacted Brower Associates at around midnight. Sachter was there, and he had one very important thing to say: John and Yoko were coming.
For the next four hours Sachter argued that John and Yoko had increased the value of Leacock Pennebaker's film immeasurably and that hence Leacock Pennebaker should pay the travel expenses of their entourage, which he reported at $26,000, although Allen Klein, Lennon's manager, later quoted a much lower figure. And for the next four hours Hansen retorted that the cost of Lennon's release would more than make up for his additional value to the film. Finally he called McMullin in New York. McMullin had just spent the entire night negotiating futilely with Bill Siddons and he was both exhausted and furious. He harangued Sachter for fifty minutes, threatening not only to throw an injunction on Brower Associates and sue Brower Associates but to have Sachter himself disbarred. When it was all over Sachter, dead white, told Hansen that everything was off. "I have never been through such verbal abuse in my entire life," he said.
A few hours later Pennebaker got a call from Hansen in his hotel room--it was no good, he had tried everything, they had gone home, there would be no film--whereupon Pennebaker treated him to a lengthy lecture on the history of rock and roll. Hansen, who had slept tow hours since Wednesday morning, didn't really listen to the lecture, but he got its gist: Pennebaker wanted to make this film. He called McMullin again.
At that point communications between the two floors were cut off. The tenth floor was either on its way to Toronto (McMullin, receptionist Barbara Altman, office boy Jimmy Saunders--everyone but Thad Holt) or trying to reach Brower Associates in Toronto (Hansen). The ninth floor--including Ricky Leacock, who had flown in with his son and sound man Robert that morning--was at Varsity Stadium. Pennebaker made a quick check which produced some alarming discoveries. He had apparently convinced Sachter about the lights, because two of his camera platforms had been moved midway down the field to accommodate the super-troupers and most of the his runway had been dismantled to provide work space and protection for the light man. All that was left of his preparations was one platform at the worst possible head-on position. He returned to his crew, which was sitting around two rented cars in a far corner of the rear stage area. Most of the equipment was unloaded, but instead of working Pennebaker prepared to tape and interview with a Canadian film magazine. Neuwirth and Desmond walked in, late as usual.
"What the hell's happening here?" Neuwirth asked Pennebaker.
"They're playing poker with me, don't you see. They're playing no movie, so I'm playing ready to leave in a minute. Y'see, we've kind of put David in a tough position. Poor David. We've put money in this thing, we're all ready to make a film. And they know that, y'see, so they're trying to get $25,000 for the Plastic Ono Band."
"We don't even want the Plastic Ono Band."
"Of course not, but they don't know that. They didn't really know about this until yesterday and all of the sudden they smell money--they see big dollar signs in front of their eyes."
It was a hot, clear late-summer day and the sun was traveling through the sky in its usual manner. It had not yet reached its zenith when the gates opened and fans began running with their blankets and lunchbags to gain positions right behind the press area. Before too long they were sitting on the remaining camera platform and occupying the terrain where the other two platforms had been, and not long after that they were climbing on the light towers. Leacock and some others had been dispatched to the airport to meet John and Yoko. Everyone else just sat around as the emcee, a hype artist from LA named Kim Fowley, came out and announced a local band to begin the show. But it was only when the second act appeared that prospects began to appear truly grim, because the second act was Bo Diddley. If Brower was serious about the film he would not have permitted a don't-miss act to go on before the contract was signed. And yet there was old Bo, with his big paunch and his big glasses, playing the same old riff he'd invented ten years before. It looked bad. Then Hansen, looking somehow fresh though without his tie, appeared with the good word. It was on after all.
Almost immediately Pennebaker was onstage with a battery-powered camera and no sound, but everyone else had to move more slowly. Desmond and Dalrymple and whoever else was around struggled to reconstruct the runway while another group tried to get Roger Murphy's tripod rig out to the platform. Most of the cameras required plug-in current, but no one could find AC outlets or the proper gauge of extension cord. The master track wasn't getting enough juice. Desmond and Toronto cameraman Doug Leiterman got some film with sound but there was no way of telling whether it would come out, and it wasn't until the end of the next set that the technical problems were solved: Robert Leacock was still running some newly-purchased heavy-duty cable out to Roger Murphy, who was perched along with about eight intrepid rock fans on the center platform.
Then there was a surprise: Bo Diddley, whom Hansen had signed beforehand, came back for an encore. Everyone was shooting now, with Pennebaker right on the stage with his camera poised about six inches from the guitar. Pennebaker was putting on a show himself; it was hard to see how he would avoid getting into his own movie. As for Bo, he was just hamming it up for posterity.
For a while the day was nothing but good hard work. With three or four cameras going at once, the crew hoisted and sweated and aimed its way through Tony Joe White and Jerry Lee Lewis and some locals with minimum hassle. Location shooting with a portable rig is taxing work, hard on the legs and especially the shoulders, which must be protected with special pads. As the day progressed acrobatic positions became rarer and breaks more precious. Food was wolfed down between sets. The runway had been erected so hastily that it wasn't stable, and once in a while Desmond threatened to teeter off the edge. Roger Murphy, who is bald, fended off the sun with a big hat.
The sun was fading, however, by the time Chuck Berry appeared. Berry is the best all-around showman in rock and roll. He is probably in his forties by now, nobody really knows, and duckwalking across the stage takes more out of him than its once did. But the cameras turned him on. Pennebaker was still contorting himself and shooting wild from the knees and belly, but Berry matched him twist for turn, and did three duckwalks, and mugged shamelessly for the cameras. In what several experienced Berry-watchers adjudged one of this finest shows ever, he stayed on for over an hour, finishing at twilight. Not until then did most of the crowd notice that the football lights had been turned on. Immediately, the clamor to turn them off began.
For a long time Fowley ignored the crowd, but he had to say something.
"The lights are on"--hip pause--"so they can continue to make the movie."
"Turn them off. It looks like a football game."
"There's about eight million people out there who want to see that movie, so you just . . ."
"You may not know it, but there's a city ordinance passed about twenty-four years ago that says the lights must be on. So if you don't want the fuzz . . ."
Cat Mother and the All-Night Newsboys, who had a hit called "Good Old Rock 'n Roll," came on. Pennebaker made his way to the front of the stage as they began and shouted down to Desmond.
"What kind of reading do you get?"
"I don't get nothing."
"Shoot everything at two-fifty, then."
"Open 'em up all the way," Desmond shouted.
By this time there was debris in the air. Some half-filled Coke containers prompted others in the crowd to stand up and open umbrellas, which prompted others to shout at them to sit down and close up. A Canadian flag appeared; a Confederate flag appeared; the mood was peaceful riot, or sixties rumble. Finally the lights went out and there was a great cheer. Neuwirth and Desmond conferred frantically at the side of the stage. Sometime during the afternoon the super-troupers had been moved back to the rear of the grandstand; Brower Associates did not want to be liable. Now it seemed that there weren't enough carbons to last the night, so that the carbon operator was using only one beam at a time; what's more, one of the big lights just wasn't throwing very much, and the operator refused to concentrate into a spot. There was simply not enough light to shoot.
The rest of the evening became a battle for photons. They were on for Lord Sutch and off for Alice Cooper and Gene Vincent, who had brought extras of their own. They were on again for Doug Kershaw. Then there were only three acts left--Little Richard, John Lennon's Plastic Ono Band, and the Doors.
Little Richard is the vainest man in rock and roll, fond of grand entrances, and no one in the camera crew was disturbed when he took a while to come on. On the contrary, everyone was grateful for the rest. But gratitude turned to apprehension when Kim Fowley announced that Little Richard would not appear until all stage lights and house lights were extinguished. He would work only in a single spot. Fowley made this announcement about four times. The lights remained on. Little Richard remained off. It was David McMullin who finally convinced the light man to do what he was told. For a few seconds the entire stadium was dark. "Thank God," Desmond said. "I just took the biggest whiz you ever saw."
Little Richard, resplendent in mirrors and pompadour and with makeup coving not only his face but his neck, put on his usual orgy of self-adoration. He was magnificent, he was quite visible, and he was just about impossible to film. Only the mirrors could save him. But the crew shot everything, open all the way. Then the Plastic Ono Band appeared. The football lights were still out but the stage lights were on, and the super-trouper man was finally using both beams. John looked nervous--he hadn't made such an appearance in three years--but he was in good voice on a program of old rock and roll songs and originals, closing with "Give Peace a Chance." Clapton's guitar, which went almost unnoticed, was also superb. A friendly reporter kept fans off the runway--not that many, really--until the group left Yoko, keening, and her amplifiers, humming, alone together on the stage.
Before the Doors had the guts to follow most of the filmmaking gear was packed away and the movie was over, or begun.
It was well after midnight when the crew left Varsity Stadium, but Hansen managed to commandeer a case of beer from the girlfriend of a hanger-on and there was a small party in his room. To celebrate, Leacock pere and Leacock fila, who had spent most of the day sitting on the grass with the crowd and shooting color came in.
"Well," the elder Leacock said. "Where are all the other executives? The Pennypackers and things?"
Hansen explained that Pennebaker was waiting to be picked up at the stadium because he had lost the keys to his car. McMullin was asleep. But Hansen, who was now into his sixty-sixth hour on two hours sleep, felt pretty good.
"We're coming out smelling of roses," he said. "We've got enough talent releases in front so we can afford the unreasonables."
The beer ran out quickly and one sound man was fast asleep on the floor. It was pushing four in the morning. Someone wondered about the Little Richard footage.
"Oh, you know Penny," Desmond said. "He'll just push it as far as he can and then cut it in."
Finally the Leacocks got up and said good night. They had to fly back to San Francisco the next day.
"What have you been shooting, Ricky?" Desmond asked.
"Oh, just some stuff for a Bell telephone commercial that Nell Cox is doing out there," Leacock said. "You know."
"Oh," Neuwirth said, "do we got a thing for you. We'd do it ourselves but we just can't make it. It can't miss, only you gotta get Peter Hansen to do the releases for you, because every salesman must be covered or they'll stick you afterwards. Yeah, it's a Thom McAn convention in Tuscaloosa. It's the biggest anywhere--anywhere, man. They got Buster Brown coming there and everything, and they'll let you shoot it for $130,000 and a percent of the distributor's net, and you know what else? You get all the shoes you can eat."
Show, Jan. 1970
Date is a guess. Piece was written in September-October 1969.