Festival (Blu-ray Review)25 Sep, 2017 By: Mike Clark
$29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray
As acknowledged by a production colleague on one of the bonus extras that accompanies this inevitably emotional Criterion release, filmmaker Murray Lerner (who died at 90 earlier this month) tinkered for so long with the editing of Festival that he had to be goosed some to complete it — with agitated reluctance. This said, he did eventually concede the point and then fairly quickly give the boulder a push.
An impressionistic chronicle of the Newport Folk Festivals from the early ’60s Pete Seeger & Co. golden days that were eventually kamikazed by Bob Dylan “going Electric,” this documentary (as opposed to a more strictly definable concert pic) finally made its way into a semi-stealth theatrical release during the fall that followed 1967’s Summer of Love. The exhibition arm here was long-gone Peppercorn-Wormser, the diminutive distributor whose name is almost as much of a quaint blast from the past as memories of all that Scott Mackenzie kind of summer lovin’. This may explain why Festival never quite got the recognition it deserved nor wide distribution even at the time; even I wasn’t able to catch it until 1978 — and not for lack of trying — when I programmed it at the AFI Theater in the Washington’s Kennedy Center. (Peppercorn-Wormser, just so you know, was at least pulling some muscles; they also handled Orson Welles’s Chimes at Midnight at the time.)
The Folk Festival was an offshoot of it famous Newport, R.I., jazz counterpart — its 1958 incarnation preserved in part on film via the equally wonderful Jazz on a Summer’s Day from 1960 (I swear the same folding chairs show up in both films). Unlike the monster-sized rock concerts that later became “event” movies — and Lerner, who won his Oscar for From Mao to Mozart: Isaac Stern in China, had another entire career fashioning films from his work recording Isle of Wight performances — Festival was a relatively modest affair. Still, give-take 20,000 patrons (almost all white, despite the number of participating blues legends) was no small figure in its day, and just setting up to film a single number must have been a real challenge, given equipment limitations of the day.
But Lerner and his editors make them work for the film: Every scene, musical and non-, is well chosen, abetting a blistering editing process that ensures a fast pace (97 minutes) and Eisenstein-ian juxtapositions. It also seems like an appropriate way to present editorially combined festivals (1963-66) that celebrate funky egalitarianism. At times, you may see almost as much music out in the lawns that serve as parking lots as you do on the stage (and some of those interviewed out on the grass will be the first to tell you so). As for the on-stage contingent, they apparently all worked for the same pittance, which was in the spirit of the time and musical genre. In contrast to future concerting and in the spirit of the times, none of the principals were out to make a lot of money — at least in this context. Except maybe for Dylan, who probably didn’t have much “pass-the-hat” in his heart even when he was in Hibbing.
The mix is here is of performers who were hot at the time (Dylan; Joan Baez; Peter, Paul & Mary; Johnny Cash; Judy Collins, Donovan; Paul Butterfield; Mike Bloomfield); a litany of old-timers from Son House to Howlin’ Wolf to the long-vanished Mississippi John Hurt (whose rendition of Candy Man Blues has a Masters & Johnson dimension that never dates); cult figures (Odetta, Jim Kweskin and the Jug Band); and others too numerous to mention, including Pete Seeger, who always seemed to be out there keeping the folkie faith back to the R.B. Hayes Administration. Festival has an attractively grainy look that enhances its journalistic chops, and as a Criterion release (cosmetically speaking), this one reminds me of one of my favorite releases ever from the company: the collected Robert Drew & Associates JFK documentaries that came out last year. For a searing image on a large-screen, I haven’t seen many recently that hit me like the sight of Mary Travers’ blonde hair in close-up on a starkly dark background. Speaking of blondes, Lerner’s New York Times obit mentioned that he’d just completed a Joni Mitchell film from his Isle of Wight treasure trove; I’ll be there.
The accompanying Criterion essay by music critic Amanda Petrusich does a smooth job of establishing historical context, which isn’t easy because even though the performers were unified in purpose, there were a lot of them from contrasting backgrounds and eras; her specific allusion to it reminds me that Elijah Wald’s much-praised Dylan Goes Electric! has been on my top-five-Kindle-to-read books since it came out in 2015 and that I’d better get cracking. Also: Music producer/annotator Mary Katherine Alden put together extensive capsule bios of the performers, which likely pulled as many muscles as Peppercorn-Wormser in 1967. And, just to show longtime friends that I’m not slipping in old age, I’d be remiss not to note that all four female clog artists from the amazing scene with the Blue Ridge Mountain Dancers are militantly comely without even trying in form and figure — and probably would have gotten me to listen to fewer Rat Pack vocals in the early ’60s if I’d been aware of them then.