[Editor's Note: The Conversations is a House feature in which Jason Bellamy and Ed Howard discuss a wide range of cinematic subjects: critical analyses of films, filmmaker overviews, and more. Readers should expect to encounter spoilers.]
Jason Bellamy: For one of my younger brothers, 2010 was the summer of music. Approaching his junior year at the University of Oregon, he spent the past few months attending about every concert that came his way in the Pacific Northwest. The criteria seemed to be this: If the concert was within driving distance and featured loud (preferably metal) bands that hadn't had a big hit since before he was born, he was going. And so he rocked to Iron Maiden, Cinderella, the Scorpions, Billy Idol, and more. He rocked at large arenas and relatively intimate county fairs, sneaking up to the front of the stage when he could to snap pictures that he would eventually file along with similar snapshots of bands like AC/DC and KISS.
My brother loves music—if he's partial to rock and metal, he's rather indiscriminate within that genre (if you couldn't tell). But I think the biggest reason my brother attends concerts is because he loves the energy of the live events, where he doesn't just hear the music but feels it, too. Even when you're pressed shoulder to shoulder with other attendees, and even when the musicians are so far away that you need to rely on the video screens to see the musicians' expressions, there's something very intimate and magically visceral about concerts. You can know every note and lyric of a band's work from listening to their albums, but somehow seeing them live makes us feel as if we know them better, or know them for the first time.
Maybe that phenomenon is what inspires filmmakers to make concert documentaries in the first place: the challenge of simulating the feeling of being there. There are numerous films about musical artists—from A Hard Day's Night (1964) to Elvis: That's the Way It Is (1970) to Bob Dylan: No Direction Home (2005) to This Is It (2009)—some of which go backstage, some of which play historian, some of which are hardly about music at all, and so there's no way we could have an all-encompassing discussion about that larger cinematic genre and its many sub-genres. Still, it's a genre worth tackling, and so in this discussion we're going to focus on five films—Woodstock (1970), Gimme Shelter (1970), Stop Making Sense (1984), Rattle and Hum (1988) and Instrument (2001)—that despite their incredible diversity have one thing in common: their chief aim seems to be to replicate the sensation of being there. And in the case of the first film, Woodstock, the music might be the least interesting part of that experience, am I right?
Ed Howard: That's certainly true for me. Woodstock is a fascinating film even if a lot of the music hasn't held up as well as the iconic status of the event itself. The concert at Woodstock has symbolic power, as a signifier for an entire generation and an entire outlook on life, out of all proportion to its musical power. And Michael Wadleigh's film about the three-day concert is a perfect document of this kind of event, placing the musical performances firmly within their immediate context: the drugs, the politics, the sex, the utopian ideas of performers and audience alike, the sense of a whole generation gathering around this pivotal event. That's not to say the music is necessarily unimportant, but oftentimes in this documentary, one senses that the music is an excuse for everything else that happens around it, the stuff that really matters. Sometimes this context is political: Wadleigh contextualizes Joan Baez's onstage remark about her husband David Harris being in jail by cutting in her offstage conversation with friends about Harris' draft resistance and his dealings with threatening prison guards. Sometimes this context is more personal, as in the interlude of a group of concert-goers practicing meditation in order to remove the "energy blockages" in their bodies. And in the film's best moments, the personal and the political come together as one: Wadleigh talks at length with a young couple who "ball" sometimes but aren't "going together," and who discuss their choice of lifestyle, their thoughts about world affairs and their relationships with their parents.
To me, that's what makes Woodstock such a strong film, above and beyond the uneven quality of its music. If the music was all there was, quite frankly I doubt the film would be admired except as a nostalgia trip for those who lived through the era, or those who only wish they had. In fact, there are long stretches of the film where I found myself waiting patiently through yet another drab musical performance, hoping that the film would take a detour away from the stage soon. Offstage is where most of the film's iconic moments happen anyway, with Jimi Hendrix's blazing closing performance as the most notable exception. When the music isn't playing, the camera roves among the crowds and finds so many wonderful moments: a girl who lost her sister and seems absentmindedly just a little concerned; a stoned guy who's easily convinced that the film crew is making a movie about portable toilets ("far out!"); skinny-dippers extolling the virtues of nudity; people running and sliding through the slick mud after a rainstorm; a couple methodically stripping to make love in the grass; a nun flashing a peace sign, captured in freeze-frame; a guy shaving in the lake and grinning sheepishly with bloody cuts all over his neck. Wadleigh also interviews the locals, gathering their impressions about the festival and the young people who have overrun their town—surprisingly, most of the local old folks seem fairly open and positive towards the young hippies.
In fact, the larger point of Woodstock isn't even a documentation of the festival so much as it is a (self-)celebration of the whole hippie generation. The film is packed with testimonials of how peaceful and carefree the event was: as several people keep repeating, a whole large city's-worth of people inhabited the area for three days without the escalating violence and ugliness that would infect many later festivals in this vein, as seen shortly in Gimme Shelter. There's a utopian message at the core of Woodstock, projecting the idea that peace and freedom on a large scale are possible, even if only in a single fleeting context, in a single place at a single time. There's a sense running through the film that this was one time when the ideals of the era were enacted in reality, when an ethos of peace and love allowed half a million people to coexist, mostly happily and peacefully, in completely disorganized conditions for three days. That's the experience that Woodstock is all about, even more than whoever happens to be onstage.
JB: That's well said. Especially in the case of something as iconic as Woodstock, I'm not sure any film could actually replicate the experience of being there, but Wadleigh makes it crystal clear what being there was like, and that's plenty impressive. One of the things I admire most about the film is how in the moment it feels. You mentioned that it conveys the utopian message that peace and freedom are possible, and that's true. And yet even though Woodstock seems to have been entirely populated with drug-popping flower children whose whole self-image was dependent upon the notion that peace is possible, there is a palpable sense of surprise at just how peaceful the whole event is/was. It's as if these hippies came for the music and stayed for the good vibes. Having attended Obama's inauguration last year, I can somewhat identify with that feeling. I walked down to the Mall that cold January morning to be part of history, and that in and of itself was memorable. But what I think I'll remember most was the spirit of the crowds. I came for Obama's hope but left hopeful mostly because of the behavior of other average Americans. Time and again in Woodstock the hippies and event organizers who promised peace and music are just as blown away by the love and togetherness as any of the buttoned-up townsfolk.
The audience becomes the main event in Woodstock, but so it was. We remember Hendrix's national anthem. We remember Joe Cocker's "With a Little Help from My Friends." Maybe we remember Richie Havens' rambling "Freedom." Maybe we remember that Baez was there, and Joplin, too. But when you think of Woodstock do you think of Sly and the Family Stone or, of all groups, Sha-Na-Na? Probably not, but they were there, too. It's fitting then that so much of the music footage captures musicians who seem to be more excited to play for that huge crowd than the crowd was excited to hear the music. Woodstock was an event that became iconic as it was happening, and people could sense it. That's rare. But, in the parlance of the film, no one thought the event was iconic because of how much they dug the music.
EH: Yes, one of the most potent aspects of the film is the way it conveys the sense of awe that the performers, audience members, organizers and filmmakers all felt when confronted with that tranquil sea of humanity, everyone swaying in time to the music or merely nodding along on their own individual trips. The camera often looks out over the crowd from the point of view of the performers, and at those moments there's a profound reversal of the usual artist/audience dynamic: rather than the audience being impressed by the musicians, it's the audience's turn to impress the performer. More than one of the musicians seems stunned by what they see out in the crowd, by the enormity of it all and by the positivity emanating from all those people.
It's interesting, though, that you cite Sly Stone and Sha-Na-Na as incidental acts, since for me those were probably two of the most memorable musical moments—for very different reasons, obviously. Sly and the Family Stone deliver an exhilarating performance that takes full advantage of the crowd's overwhelming size, stirring up the audience into a funk sing-a-long, with Sly grinning the whole time as he frantically flips switches on his synthesizer or shouts exhortations into the mic. The performance is further enhanced by the late-night vibe, by the cool blue lights illuminating the musicians, making a neon glowing spectacle of it all. Maybe this funky jam, with its gospel overtones and flashy stage antics and glitzy outfits, is a bit of an outlier in the folksy context of Woodstock, but there's no doubt that it's a powerful performance anyway. And then there's Sha-Na-Na, who seem so absurdly out-of-place with their '50s nostalgia dance act that the only possible reaction is to laugh hysterically. The film again enhances the impact of this performance through the frenetic editing, with dancers leaping across the stage, bouncing in place, flying in alternately from the left and then from the right. It's goofy as hell, and sure to come as a shock in this setting, a sudden burst of loony energy that really stands out, even if it's not exactly in a good way.
But these performances, like Hendrix's set, are exceptions that stand out for one reason or another from the general (and some might say generic) hippie rock coming from most of the rest of the acts. Going into this conversation, I had the idea that the concert film is an especially subjective cinematic subgenre, in that it's so heavily dependent on the viewer's musical taste: who's going to enjoy sitting through a concert documentary, however skillfully made, about music they don't like? It's a question I'm sure we'll return to when we talk about Rattle and Hum. But Woodstock is fascinating as a historical document, as a film that evokes the spirit of an era, as a film where the ideas are more important than the music. Usually, that outlook annoys me in music—or in any artform, really. It annoys me even in this film, when I get the sense that guys like Country Joe or John Sebastian are "all about the message, man," with little consideration of the artistic power of music except as a vehicle for simplistic sloganeering. The film as a whole, though, attempts to present an overall portrait of this scene and this event, and in that context it makes sense that the music, whatever one thinks of it all, is only one small part of this big cultural pivot point.
JB: A small part, but a crucial part. I don't want us to lose sight of that. For example, it's easy to dismiss Country Joe's "Vietnam Song," which in addition to being cheap sloganeering ("what are we fighting for?") is lamely written to boot ("and it's 5, 6, 7, open up the pearly gates"? really?). But that song is designed as a sing-a-long, and it absolutely succeeds in that respect. Sing-a-longs might not always make for great art, the same way so many run-of-the-mill Hollywood comedies don't, but they do create a sense of togetherness, cheap though it might be. So maybe it shouldn't be a surprise that, of the crowd shots we see in Woodstock, no song triggers an audience reaction on par with the one for "Vietnam Song." If Woodstock started out as a concert and became an exercise in peace and harmony, it makes sense that the music that had the greatest impact was the stuff that inspired that togetherness.
As for my comments about Sly and the Family Stone and Sha-Na-Na, I didn't mean to imply that those acts are incidental, at least not within the film or even within the event as it was unfolding. I was only pointing out that those acts aren't part of the lore of Woodstock. Canned Heat's "Going Up the Country" inspires Woodstock-esque thoughts, while Sly and the Family Stone's "I Want to Take You Higher" probably doesn't. And that's a little ironic, actually, because if Wikipedia is to be trusted Sly and the Family Stone might have been the most of-the-moment group to perform at Woodstock, having produced one of Billboard's No. 1 hits of 1969, "Everyday People." (Of course, one of the other big hits of that year was The 5th Dimension's "Aquarius/Let the Sun Shine In (The Flesh Failures)" from the Hair soundtrack, which might be indicative of the spirit of the music that Woodstock's audience wanted to groove to.) Point is, Sly and the Family Stone might have been immediately relevant at the time, even though their participation in the concert is mostly forgotten today.
In terms of the energy of the performances, and the feelings they inspire while watching this film, I agree with you that the utter exuberance and absurdity of Sha-Na-Na is irresistible, while Sly and the Family Stone's psychedelic nighttime performance is a welcome change of pace visually, even though their version of "I Want to Take You Higher" is yet another instance in which the group on stage seems to have one goal: play the shit out of it. The other performances that are most memorable to me have more to do with the way they're filmed. For starters, Havens' "Handsome Johnny" is performed almost in one shot, the camera slowly panning up and down his body to give us all the views that in most films would be spliced together: his hand strumming, his foot stomping, his thumb sliding up and down the neck of the guitar, his head tilted back revealing his missing teeth. It feels as if Havens is covered by multiple cameras, which of course is the norm in this film, but, nope, it's just one camera, and the result is surprisingly intimate. Then there's Cocker's performance of "With a Little Help From My Friends." It's one of the many performances in the film to use the split-screen approach, but what's notable here is that most of the time Cocker is split-screened each shot is nearly identical, sometimes with one half of the split screen zoomed in just a bit closer than the other. The effect, as Cocker flails his arms and screams, is that his performance seems somehow too passionate to be contained in just one shot, as if his voice is too big to come from just one man.
And finally there's Crosby, Stills and Nash's performance of "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes." It's a song that I admit I'm quite fond of in general. (I'm a sucker for songs with three acts, whether it's this or Billy Joel's "Scenes from an Italian Restaurant" or Guns N' Roses' "November Rain," and so on.) Still, I love the way the scene is edited: opening with split-screen compositions that capture Stephen Stills singing lead in one frame and Graham Nash and David Crosby harmonizing the accompaniment in another; then cutting to a few striking single-frame shots that capture the group together, either in profile or from behind, illuminated by a distant stage light; and then going back to the split-screen approach, now mostly tight closeups on their faces, which are bathed in red light. Though for the majority of the film the split-screen is effective because it allows us to keep one eye on stage and another eye on the crowd, or because it allows us to feel the wild diversity of everything happening off stage, this is a case where using both frames to capture the musicians is quite powerful. To me, the editing of the Crosby, Stills and Nash performance achieves cinematically what the Talking Heads achieve with their evolutionary beginning of Stop Making Sense (which we'll discuss later): it calls attention to the individual pieces of the music while also allowing us to experience it as a whole.
EH: One place we definitely agree is that much of the power of the musical performances in this film derives at least equally from the cinematic presentation of the music, rather than solely from the music itself. The editing—and especially the use of split-screen—is too intrusive, too extravagant, for Woodstock to qualify as simple documentation. The filmmakers are after a feeling rather than an event. Though the split-screen technique sometimes does something as simple as showing both the musicians and the audience at the same time, more often it's used as an expressive device, multiplying the musicians the better to emphasize their emotional investment in their songs, or examining the stage from multiple perspectives at once to capture (or enhance) the vibrancy and excitement of the performers and the music. The editing is visceral, and at times even—in my opinion, anyway—infuses some energy into this music that wouldn't otherwise be there. The Joe Cocker performance is a good example. I've never much cared for that ubiquitous and facile song (maybe partly, if however subconsciously and/or unfairly, because of memories of a sixth grade graduation performance with the "I get high" lyrics altered) but there's no denying that, on film, there's something electric about it all, about the multiplied images of Cocker with shaggy hair hanging in his eyes, obviously wasted, playing air guitar, falling over his own feet and shambling up to the microphone to croak and wail out those familiar lyrics.
The use of split-screen is even more radical during the Who's performance, coupled with superimpositions and overlays so at times the image becomes nearly abstract, reveling in the interplay of colors and forms rather than presenting clear images of the action onstage. At several points during this sequence, the frame is divided in two, with slightly different angles of singer Roger Daltry on each side of the split, and additional images of the other musicians superimposed within each half of the frame. This creates very complex images that are only complicated further by the frenzied movements of the performers, so that it's often difficult to resolve what's happening at any given moment, even though the general, visceral sense of a rock performance comes across in these dense, layered images. There's a similar density and experimental sensibility in the Ten Years After segment, in which singer Alvin Lee often seems to be crooning to his own mirrored image, or else centered between distorted perspectives on the stage as a whole.
If the use of split-screen during "Judy Blue Eyes" is, as you say, a way of assembling a musical and visual totality from constituent parts, at other times the fragmentary editing and speed-blurred imagery seem intended to obscure rather than to elucidate. And those moments, the times when the filmmakers create hazy patchworks of loose impressions rather than definitive portraits, are perhaps the images that best capture the feel of being there at an event like this. The pastiche editing during the Who and Ten Years After sets suggests a profound lack of a straightforward linear narrative for this event: instead there is a rush of fleeting impressions, images that might resonate for a moment before fading back into the general chaos, images so cluttered and frantic that the eye hardly knows where to look. In that sense, Woodstock the film, though originally released only a year after the concert it documented, already accounted for nostalgia, for the blurring effects of memory. For every moment where the filmmakers step in to clarify, to contextualize, there's another where they deliberately allow things—onstage and off—to remain as chaotic, overwhelming and difficult to grasp as Woodstock doubtless was for many of those who experienced it directly.
JB: Chaos is certainly a dominant strain in this film. On stage there are numerous public address announcements about everything from bad drugs to missing persons to childbirth. Supplies are brought in by helicopter to serve what we're repeatedly told is an official disaster area. The roads are clogged. Debris is everywhere. But, darn it, people are having a good time anyway, and the filmmaking reflects that. One of the film's most inspired offstage uses of split screen involves the rather famous scene you mentioned earlier in which a couple strips off their clothes and lies down in the grass to have sex—or, given the spirit of the event, to "make love." That touching scene unfolds on the right half of the screen while on the left half the concert's producers are interviewed about the event's success and lack thereof. "Financially, this is a disaster," one of the producers says. "But you look so happy," the reporter observes. Now the other producer speaks up, nodding his head toward the other half of the screen, in the direction of the couple making love, as if he can see them in the other frame (in actuality, he's nodding toward an unseen crowd in front of the stage): "Look what you got there, man. You couldn't buy that for anything." "Sure," the other producer chimes in, "this is really beautiful, man." And it is.
That's one of the film's most poignant scenes, along with the one in which the Port-o-San man happily goes about the business of restocking toilet paper in the outhouses and then reveals that one of his sons is off in Vietnam. You might expect bitterness from this guy—cleaning toilets for kids who are suspicious of the military in which his son serves. Instead, his heart swells for them. Yet for all the little poignant moments, I'd be remiss not to mention how funny Woodstock is. The dialogue is priceless: a TV reporter earnestly saying to a man half his age, "You dig it all?"; a young woman talking about this "cat" and that "cat"; that couple talking about "balling," and one of them describing how he was recently on "a Hamlet trip; to be or not to be"; and I always get a special kick out of the scene in which the public address announcer refers to a helicopter as a "choppity-choppity." These scenes aren't meant to mock the subjects but to capture them at their essence. I think they succeed.
EH: So do I. As you say, the film is often funny but never at the expense of the concertgoers. It's an affectionate portrait of '60s idealism, an ode to the belief that a sing-a-long can stop a war—and as little regard as I have for some of the music involved, I do think that kind of idealism is touching and even inspiring. As such, Woodstock and its image of this era contrast strikingly against Gimme Shelter, another 1970 film about a hippie music festival. These two films, despite being made at more or less the same time and in similar circumstances, couldn't be more different. If Woodstock is an attempt to sum up an era, to encapsulate the hopes and dreams of the idealistic hippie generation, Gimme Shelter is the document of that era's end, the exposé on how those dreams were smashed. It's also an eye-opener for just how badly the Woodstock Festival could have gone if things had been just slightly different. I think there's an obvious connection between the dazed Woodstock producers enthusing about peace and love and the ineffectual attempts to defuse the violence at Altamont, as seen in Gimme Shelter. Again and again, throughout this film, as the violence escalates and people are being hurt in the crowds, the musicians lamely repeat "cool out" and "be cool," trying to calm down the Hell's Angels they hired as bouncers and bodyguards, trying to turn the violence aside with a positive attitude. It all reminds me of that South Park episode where one of the characters brokers a truce between the Bloods and the Crips by bringing the rival gangs to a rec center and repeating, "Come on, guys, just come on." Mick Jagger's "be cool" sounds just as weak, just as naïve, the desperate words of a performer who has no idea what to do when confronted with a debacle like the one unfolding in front of that stage.
And though it never came to that at Woodstock, it's not hard to imagine that, if it had, everyone in charge would have been just as unprepared to deal with violence or negative vibes. What Altamont and Gimme Shelter expose are the limitations of this generation and this mentality, the way the ethos of peace and love espoused by the musicians and concertgoers falls apart when confronted by those who don't share those beliefs, who don't play by the same rules. It's ugly and disastrous, and particularly heartbreaking when juxtaposed against the sense of possibility and hopefulness and enthusiasm that was everywhere at Woodstock. Woodstock is the dream of the '60s, and Gimme Shelter is its dark flipside.
JB: The word I scribbled down while watching Gimme Shelter is "buzzkill." These two films are both fascinating on their own, but as a double feature they're absolutely incredible. You couldn't write a greater contrast in moods. Woodstock is defined by producers who happily lose money, by townspeople who help feed the kids who are overrunning their quiet farmland, by musicians awed by the spectacle of peace around them. And then there's Gimme Shelter, which chronicles a concert now synonymous with violence, which shows Mick Jagger getting sloppily punched by a fan before he even gets to his trailer at Altamont, and which, prior to all of that, allows us to be privy to negotiations in which lawyer Melvin Belli (yes, Zodiac fans, that Melvin Belli) tries to broker a deal to get the Stones to play at any San Francisco venue that will take them. It's as if the producers of both concerts made a deal with the devil to have Woodstock triumph and had to pay their tab at Altamont.
But Gimme Shelter is a buzzkill even if you haven't watched Woodstock, precisely because of its structure. Gimme Shelter begins with a typically lively performance of "Jumpin' Jack Flash" at a previous concert. But then it goes inside the editing room, where the Stones gather round and listen to a San Francisco radio personality talking about Altamont in the past tense. "There were four births, four deaths and an awful lot of scuffles reported," he says. The Stones listen intently, grimacing here, smiling there. Their faces are mostly mournful. Charlie Watts is especially shaken up. After listening to a Hell's Angel named Sonny blasting the band and defending the Hell's Angels for kicking some hippie ass, Watts adopts this blank stare as if he's searching the depths of his memory; he thinks that perhaps he met Sonny that night, but he can't be sure. In any case, he responds to the tape of the radio broadcast as if he's been witness to a profound tragedy. His is the kind of expression you would expect on the face of a teenager who has just learned that his best friend walked into the school cafeteria and opened fire with a machine gun. "Oh, dear, what a shame," he says.
From here, the film cuts back to the Stones on stage, pre-Altamont again, as effervescent as ever. But the sense of dread never goes away. If Woodstock is a high, Altamont is a bad trip.
EH: You're right that the structure of Gimme Shelter dictates its mood. The film follows the Stones through a few of the shows leading up to Altamont, and their performances are frequently exciting and electrifying: the band was in top form at this point, coming off of recent masterpiece Beggars Banquet, with Let It Bleed (released not even a month after Altamont), Sticky Fingers and Exile On Main Street still ahead of them. In the film, they perform chugging, high-energy versions of signature songs like "Honky Tonk Women" and "Street-Fighting Man," the latter song especially ironic in light of its celebration of violence and aggression. They perform a heartfelt run through Robert Johnson's ragged ballad "Love In Vain," with Jagger's voice straining around the lyrics, cracking and groaning with bluesy depths of feeling. Musically, the film is frequently exhilarating, as the Stones at their best couldn't fail to be. Even when everything's falling apart at Altamont, and the Stones have to keep halting their songs as violence erupts in the audience gathered around the stage, there's a sense of great music struggling to come together, of this energy being translated, sporadically and unpredictably, into the band's desperate attempts to get through a song in this oppressive atmosphere.
And yet, the filmmakers (Albert and David Maysles along with editor Charlotte Zwerin) never allow these performances to stand alone. Any sense of exhilaration or power in the music is always tempered by the aura of dread and inevitability hanging over the film. By opening with Charlie Watts' reaction to the Altamont disaster, the filmmakers provide a context for everything that comes next, foreshadowing the tragic end of this tour. The scenes with Melvin Belli further diffuse any excitement in the pre-Altamont concert footage, detailing the mind-numbing negotiations behind the tour, the machinations of the band's legal team as they try to secure a venue. The film makes it all but impossible to focus on the music, and in that sense it's very much like Woodstock, in that both films attempt to reach beyond the music, to establish the broader context and social situation in which these artists exist. The difference is that Woodstock reaches beyond the music to exalt the attitude and the idealistic vision represented by the event, while Gimme Shelter provides context in order to reveal the inadequacy of the musicians' and producers' attempts to diffuse the violence at Altamont, as well as perhaps the inadequacy of their reactions after the fact.
In my view, the film is undoubtedly successful at establishing this context, often portraying the Rolling Stones as hopelessly lost and clueless amidst all this chaos. Watts' "what a shame," along with the band's collective stunned silence when the Maysles brothers play back footage of the off-stage murder of an audience member by a Hell's Angel, suggests that the band has no idea how to respond, no idea what to think of this disaster for which they are at least partially responsible. So it's puzzling that so much of the initial response to the film when it was first released centered around its supposed status as an empty, Stones-sponsored spectacle. Pauline Kael essentially called it a snuff film and asserted that the film's "facts are manufactured for the cinema," and countless other critics of the time more or less agreed that the film freed the Stones of accountability. I don't really understand that complaint; to me, the film seems pretty unsparing in its portrayal of everyone involved in Altamont, creating an eloquent and heartbreaking rebuttal of Woodstock's naïve idea that peace and love can overcome violence and chaos.
JB: Kael's finger-pointing is fascinating on a number of levels. For starters, there appear to be several things that she got wrong based on vague or inaccurate reporting of Altamont in Rolling Stone. But on top of that, there appear to be the things Kael got wrong because she wanted the facts to line up with her hypothesis. In a response to Kael's 1970 review, Gimme Shelter's filmmakers took the critic to task for writing as fact things that they had specifically refuted in an interview. Meanwhile, the filmmakers also pointed out that some of the arguments Kael makes in her effort to demonstrate the Stones' partial culpability were in fact supported by, and possibly wholly derived from, a film she accuses of being an effort to "whitewash" the Stones and the filmmakers of responsibility: "All the evidence she uses in her analysis of [the Stones'] disturbing relationship to their audience is evidence supplied by the film, by the structure of the film which tries to render in its maximum complexity the very problems of Jagger's double self, of his insolent appeal and the fury it can and in fact does provoke, and even the pathos of his final powerlessness. These are the filmmakers' insights and Miss Kael serves them up as if they were her own discovery."
Kael's original review and the filmmakers' response can be found in their entirety here. And what strikes me reading both pieces is their tendency for overstatement. Kael goes too far in her implications that the Stones themselves designed Altamont as a cinematic spectacle, at one point loosely comparing Gimme Shelter to Triumph of the Will. But then the filmmakers go too far in suggesting that Kael pins the killing on them, conveniently ignoring that she opens her review by saying that "the violence and murder weren't scheduled" and that she later observes that "it's impossible to know how much movie-making itself is responsible for those consequences." (That said, Kael's acknowledgements seem to be offered merely as loopholes for libel-avoidance. She never directly accuses the Stones of murder by extension, just like the folks at Fox News are careful to never directly call Obama a Muslim, but in the meantime that's the theme of the narrative. If I were the filmmakers, I'd be pissed too.) So to some degree Kael vs. Gimme Shelter is evidence that even 40 years ago, like today, a film's big picture could be lost in the controversy of tangential issues, such as Kael being miffed that Gimme Shelter isn't forthright in detailing that the Stones themselves helped to finance the film (an omission that, Kael's right, makes the "free" concert at Altamont a little less magnanimous).
All of that leads me here: If the controversy of Kael vs. Gimme Shelter is ageless, Kael's specific objections are, for the most part, quaintly antiquated. The essential thrust of her objection is an implication that an event that came to be solely because it was going to be filmed is passed off as documentary fact. Whereas Woodstock was going to happen whether or not cameras showed up, the concert at Altamont was arranged precisely so it could be filmed, and even though the events themselves weren't choreographed, and even though no one could have predicted the stabbing that made the event so memorable, Kael roughly argues that Gimme Shelter suffers from a kind of original sin that disqualifies it from being heralded as a cinematic achievement of the documentary genre. To spark this kind of reaction today it takes Casey Affleck filming Joaquin Phoenix—perhaps in character, perhaps not—for I'm Still Here, which might indeed be all performance and no documentary "truth" whatsoever. (In fact, though that film was released with its veracity uncertain, Casey Affleck has since confirmed that it was all a staged act.) Today, in this reality-TV dominated, YouTube-obsessed world in which our political leaders are more attuned to creating cinematic narratives than to outlining their policies (think of Obama's famous Roman columns address at the Democratic National Convention), we now expect the camera's presence to create as many events as it captures surreptitiously ("documenting" without influencing).
And so for me it's ironic that Kael implies that much of Gimme Shelter is a pose, because watching it today I find it refreshingly unaffected. One of my favorite shots in the entire film comes in a scene in which the Stones relax and listen to a tape of their recording of "Wild Horses." As the song plays, Keith Richards (who is credited in the film as "Keith Richard") reclines and casually taps his boot to the music. Today, it would be hard to watch a modern version of that scene without feeling that the artist in question was playing to the camera. But in pre-reality-TV 1970, Richards' enjoyment of the music has an earnestness that I find almost overwhelmingly touching. And I could say the same of Jagger's feeble attempts to stop the violence at Altamont.
EH: I'm not sure Altamont was staged just to be filmed—the Salon article cited above suggests it was, at least partly, a response to complaints about the Stones' generally high concert ticket prices—but regardless, I think you're right that this film comes off as especially unaffected and natural in comparison to today's concepts of "documentary" and "reality." The film may have been a key factor in deciding to put the concert together in the first place, but I don't get the sense that the Maysles brothers manipulated or staged much if anything that subsequently happened in front of their cameras. I took note of that "Wild Horses" scene as well, and it really does achieve a sense of casual observation that, in many ways, would be impossible today, when everyone—particularly everyone who's in the public eye—is so hyper-aware whenever a camera's nearby. It's a great moment, with the camera zooming in on Richards' boot as he taps his toes in time with the music. The laidback, fly-on-the-wall perspective of moments like that is especially affecting in the context of this band that otherwise seems to be putting up such a front of performance and posing, from Jagger's sexualized antics to the studied intensity of Richards with his guitar.
I think that's also why it's so stunning when the band's attitude collapses when confronted by violence at Altamont, and why it's so affecting to watch them watch the slowed-down murder footage from the concert. There's something destabilizing about seeing the performers' masks drop, to see them revealed as awkward, uncertain, shaken humans when faced with a tragedy that they're almost pathetically unprepared to deal with. This theme of performance versus reality is carried through the film even when the violence at Altamont isn't the central topic. At one point, the film features a song by Ike and Tina Turner, though I don't think Ike ever actually appears in the frame: the camera seems transfixed by Tina Turner in her short skirt, lewdly caressing the mic, projecting raw heat in her every motion and her every word. Turner's raw, sexy performance makes Mick Jagger's prancing antics look comparatively tame and contrived; it's the difference between the real thing and a staged pantomime act. Kael may have made that difference the essence of her criticism of the film, but in fact the film's own text embodies that dialectic, implicitly questioning and examining the issues of authenticity that revolve around both Altamont and the Rolling Stones.
JB: I think we should be careful not to suggest that Tina Turner's "real" performance is entirely free from calculation or stagecraft, but relatively speaking, and in the big picture, you're right. Gimme Shelter intentionally exposes that there's a difference between the private Rolling Stones and the public Rolling Stones. In fact, one scene is quite blatant in this respect. Early in the film, after we've watched the band digesting the post-Altamont radio broadcast, there's a scene in which a pre-Altamont Mick Jagger is questioned at a press conference about the band's current state of satisfaction. "Do you mean sexually, or philosophically?" Jagger responds, a huge smile on his face, soaking in this moment under the spotlight. Both, the reporter responds. Jagger then delivers a rambling answer that concludes with him assessing the band this way: "Financially dissatisfied. Sexually satisfied. Philosophically trying." From there the film cuts back to Jagger in the editing studio, watching this archival footage. Jagger is very much not "on" here. His face is blank. He seems not to comprehend that the camera nearby that's watching Jagger watch himself will eventually produce an audience as real as the gaggle of reporters that he delighted in entertaining at the press conference. Upon seeing his response to the reporter, Jagger mumbles this as an assessment: "Rubbish." I'm not sure how Gimme Shelter could more clearly articulate that dichotomy between genuineness and performance than it does in that moment, or, for that matter, in the scenes in which the band goes into giggle fits watching clips of their previous performances, clearly entertained by their public theatricalities.
Having said that, to me what's so riveting about the concert at Altamont isn't what happens out in the audience, although the growing sense of doom is palpable. What's fascinating is that while things spin out of control we see the Stones, or at least Jagger, struggling between that private and public self. When Jagger pleads with the audience to "be cool," the doubtfulness and trepidation in his voice are the private Jagger shining through, and yet at the same time Jagger is trying to use his status as a rock icon to suggest some sort of parental authority or God-like control. As things continue to spill out of hand you can sense Jagger realizing, as if for the first time, that in fact he can't control the audience, and that celebrity idolatry only goes so far. And so this is probably the perfect time to turn our attention to Stop Making Sense. Because while Gimme Shelter is defined by all that a band can't control, the 1984 Talking Heads concert—actually several edited together to appear as one—is an appreciation of onstage choreography.
EH: Yes, Stop Making Sense represents quite a contrast against both Woodstock and Gimme Shelter. While those films are constantly pushing beyond the music, encompassing external contexts and attempting to express ideas about the culture and society of the time, Stop Making Sense is so singularly focused on what's happening onstage that there's hardly any glimpse even of the audience until near the end of the film. As you say, it's about the "onstage choreography," to such an extent that it resembles a live music video, as the band's stage show—put together by frontman David Byrne—involves minimalist design and clever conceptual routines that entertain without ever becoming the kind of flashy spectacle that detracts from the music itself. Indeed, the concept that drives the film from the beginning seems designed to focus attention wholly on the music, on the way that a band's sound is assembled from its constituent parts.
For the first number, "Psycho Killer," Byrne performs solo with just an acoustic guitar and a tape deck that's supposedly the source of the simple drum machine pattern that accompanies his playing and singing. It's a great performance of one of the band's best songs, enhanced by Byrne's intense stare and studied awkwardness, like his stumbling response to some machine gun-like beats during a break, a staggering walk that Stephanie Zacharek compared to Jean-Paul Belmondo's death scene at the end of Breathless, an apt comparison in light of Godard's fascination with musical/visual convergences and disjunctions. Then, with each subsequent song, another member of the band joins Byrne onstage, starting with bassist Tina Weymouth for the bittersweet ballad "Heaven," and eventually culminating with the core quartet plus two dancers/backup singers, and three additional musicians, with most of the extra cast coming from a background in R&B and P-Funk. It's a brilliant conceit, building up the typical Talking Heads sound from sparse acoustic-guitar-and-a-beat minimalism into the lively, ethnically allusive density of their studio albums. The progression is done in a completely transparent way, too, with stage crews wheeling out props and setting up even in the middle of songs, gradually adding the necessary instruments to what had started as a bare, Spartan stage.
This is thrilling, viscerally engaging filmmaking, starting with just the shadow of Byrne's guitar neck on the floor of the stage, then following his feet as he steps up to the mic and places the boombox beside him, and finally panning up, past his guitar, to his gangly neck and wide eyes, his head bobbing hypnotically with the music. With each subsequent song, the sound deepens and grows more complicated, with Weymouth's insistently rubbery bass eventually joined by the additional guitar lines of ex-Modern Lover Jerry Harrison and an increasingly complex rhythm section. Director Jonathan Demme maintains what seems to be a documentary objectivity, just watching as the theatrical stage show unfolds, but his darting, carefully tracking camerawork must have required as much planning as the show itself: the camera is as much a part of the choreography here as anything that happens onstage. At one point during "Psycho Killer," Byrne even dances at the camera, staring into the lens as his steps carry him towards it and then away again, off to stagger around the perimeter of the stage with the camera in pursuit. After the questions about documentary integrity raised by Gimme Shelter, and the interest in social over musical matters in Woodstock, it's refreshing to deal with a film that has no pretensions about its role: the simple art of presenting a great, entertaining stage show where the music is, as it should be, given first billing.
JB: Well, sort of. I mean, sure, there's no question that compared to Woodstock and Gimme Shelter, Stop Making Sense is stripped down to its musical core. But I'm still not sure music is what's given first billing here. Because to me this is a celebration of presentation, of performance itself, more than it is a celebration or observation of music. I think your praise for Demme is appropriate, but in this case the one with cinematic vision is Byrne, who is credited as the live show's creator, and who, without question, is absolutely aware of his show's visual aesthetics. This concert, in its own mostly spare way, is really as choreographed as anything Michael Jackson ever did—a reality that comes across not so much when Byrne illuminates the stage with a living room lamp or dons that trademark oversized suit but rather when he performs "Life During Wartime," which begins with a seemingly spontaneous act of running in place and then transitions into some clearly practiced dance moves, one of which makes it look like Byrne is trying to regurgitate a frog while his arms thrust upward as if he's a marionette.
I must admit, I found that an odd direction for Byrne's show to take, because those opening numbers, in which the band and the instruments assemble piece by piece, don't just draw our attention to the music but to its specific parts. Nothing is ever stopping us from listening to a song and focusing on one element, whether it's the drumbeat or the backup vocals, but Byrne's constructionist approach encourages us to deconstruct the music, and it's a thrilling experience. But for me some of that enthusiasm for the music is lost in all the antics that come after it, because, again, I see those as more about performance. And, don't get me wrong, performance is a worthy art form in its own right. But the problem with Byrne's choreography is that once our attention is focused on that performance, it's somewhat difficult to see—or, more accurately, to hear—beyond it. And whereas so many pop stars try to illuminate the themes of their songs—usually far too literally—Byrne's antics are abstractionist to the point that Mick Jagger's signature electrocuted rooster strut almost seems expressive of something more than raw energy by comparison.
If this makes it sound as if I dislike Stop Making Sense or Byrne's staging, well, that's not the case at all. And I think Demme does a fine job of capturing the music almost in spite of Byrne's entertaining distractions. But if Woodstock is really about community and Gimme Shelter is really about tragedy, I think this film keeps the streak alive of music films that aren't really about music. This is about performance. Am I right?
EH: I don't think so. Or, perhaps more accurately, the performance aspect is so intimately tied to the music that they nearly become the same thing. Rather than distracting from the music, to me Byrne's antics are an intrinsic part of the music. His jittery motions, his outsized persona, his nerdy enthusiasm and high-energy calisthenics routines: it all seems to feed into, and equally to derive from, the music itself, to the point that the music and the motion surrounding it become inextricable. It's hard to separate the music—jumpy, spastic, a bundle of raw nerves and ironic sentiments—from Byrne's persona(lity). It's true, the opening four or five songs, where our attention is turned to each individual element of the music one instrument at a time, represent a pinnacle of musical deconstruction that's hard to top. But I don't see the rest of the film as a letdown so much as a natural continuation of that initial buildup. When Byrne is jogging around the stage or dancing with a floor lamp, sure, it's performative, but it's also very attuned to the rhythms and even the thematic subtexts of the music. Byrne's music, with its anxious rhythms and lyrics that are alternately desperate and yearning for happiness and peace, is a kind of nervous breakdown for suburbia. Much of the stage show in Stop Making Sense reflects that aspect of the band's music, suggesting minimalist home spaces floating in the darkness, or surreal slogans glowing neon like bizarre corporate logos.
There's a thin line between performance elements that distract from the music, and performance elements that simply enhance and inform the substance of the music, and for me at least, the shows captured in Stop Making Sense generally fall on the right side of that line. Sure, by the end of the film it's all devolved into a frenzied tent revival atmosphere where the music seems like the least important thing going on—particularly when Byrne, in a gesture that's equal parts touching and showman-like, invites the stage hands out for a bow—but much of what happens before that is minimalist enough that the music is simply enriched by the little nuances of Bynre's geeky non-dancing or the stage props. In fact, considering how much the Talking Heads' music is about polyrhythm and syncopation, I'd argue that all the dancing and running and jittery motion merely adds another layer to the shifting percussion of the music: Byrne's rubbery neck pulsing in time with the beat emphasizes the dominance of the rhythmic elements in this band. (And if there's any question about how crucial Byrne is to both the music and the spectacle, check out how boring both become during the brief interlude when he cedes the stage to the Tina Weymouth/Chris Frantz side project Tom Tom Club.)
So, yes, Stop Making Sense is certainly about performance to some degree, but it's about performance intimately wedded to music and meaning, rather than simply an empty spectacle.
JB: It's certainly not "empty spectacle." Furthermore, you make a great point about the way Byrne's overall energy syncs with the music, even if each specific gyration is essentially meaningless (and, while we're here, I agree that Byrne's presence is missed in the Tom Tom Club interlude—a quirky ditty that I delighted in for about 15 seconds before wishing it would end already). The fun thing about watching Byrne's antics is that as much as they justifiably inspire the question, "What is he doing!?" they also inspire the question, "Well, what else would he do?" Whether it's because too many music stars mindlessly imitate their idols or because certain music actually inspires specific responses, each music genre tends to have its own rules for physical representation. Metal rockers slam their heads, flip their hair and grimace. Rappers strut and pose. Pop musicians do graceful, choreographed dances. Country musicians do whatever they can do while wearing a cowboy hat and boots and wrangling a big guitar. But the music of the Talking Heads doesn't fit neatly into any box, and so it's fitting that Byrne's choreography doesn't either. And so in the big picture I guess I agree with you: Byrne's physical interpretations of his songs actually help us to understand the music itself.
In that way, watching this film made me think of another music group with a hard-to-classify sound: OK Go. This is a group less known for their music than their YouTube-sensational music videos, like the one for "Here It Goes Again", in which the group does a choreographed routine on treadmills, or the one for "This Too Shall Pass", which features a gloriously goofy Rube Goldberg machine. It would be tempting to dismiss OK Go as a gimmick, but instead I wonder if they're visionaries of Byrne's caliber. In our discussion of Gimme Shelter, we appreciated the stage presence of Tina Turner, who seemed to so effortlessly enhance her music by unleashing her raw sexuality. But when you think about it, Turner had it easy. She could suggestively stroke her microphone—a hardly original move that she just happened to do more convincingly than anyone else. And so while I do think Byrne's stage antics overshadow the music itself, I also admire that he's willing to do the unusual to visually express a kind of music that has no automatic interpretations.
EH: I think that's well-stated. The Talking Heads' stage show in this film is so striking because it does distance itself from the traditional rocker poses, because Byrne isn't afraid to be geeky—he even engages in some playful self-mockery when the backup dancers imitate his goofy, gangly running motions while dancing with him, gently poking fun at the frontman's antics. Stephanie Zacharek, in the review cited above, says that moment also calls attention to Byrne's white boy nerdiness in contrast to the soulfulness of the music he's channeling, and I think there's some truth to that as well. One of the subtexts of this film is the idea that the Talking Heads are (yet another) white band incorporating "black music" into their sound, whether it's funk (keyboardist Bernie Worrell and backup singer Mabry Holt are both alumni of George Clinton's P-Funk orbit) or soul or African polyrhythms or the increasing gospel tinges that enter the music towards the end of the show. The one-by-one introductions at the beginning also emphasize this aspect of the performance, as the band starts as an all-white assemblage until, by the time everyone's on stage, half the people playing are black. It's an acknowledgment, perhaps, of the band's debt to the black music that informs their style, another indication that the stage show is deeply integrated into this music.
Anyway, I like your idea that certain types of music elicit a corresponding visual language, and it's obvious that Byrne and the Talking Heads invented their distinctive visual language more or less from scratch, just as they had with their highly original sound. That's a key difference, incidentally, between them and the example you cite of OK Go, who much like the White Stripes consistently marry clever videos to an overly familiar sound, with the White Stripes channeling classic garage rock and OK Go fitting neatly into the current fad for dance-punk and post-punk revivalists. The Talking Heads united visual and musical originality into a coherent whole; there's a fairly small and select group of artists who can say the same.
Speaking of musical originality, and the lack thereof, maybe it's time to turn to Rattle and Hum, Phil Joanou's film about U2's 1987 US tour. I'll say right up front: I really dislike U2, and always have, which is a pretty big hurdle to clear in trying to talk somewhat objectively about a film that's solely about them and their music. I bring this up because I think an important point about music documentaries is that, generally speaking, they're viewed less as standalone films than as souvenirs for fans of the bands involved. Some music films attempt to stretch beyond this narrow purview, and we've already discussed how Woodstock and Gimme Shelter are as much about social context and ideas as the actual music—but at the end of the day, the viewer who doesn't enjoy the music is missing a crucial part of the intended experience of the concert film. So Rattle and Hum was admittedly a tough slog for me, between Bono's pompous posturing and the group's bland, slick arena rock that seems designed to be belted out in baseball stadiums. I do have some more substantive comments about the film, too, don't worry, but for now I'll hand this back to you with a question: can a relatively straightforward concert/tour film like Rattle and Hum (or Stop Making Sense, for that matter, though that film at least is so visually inventive that I suspect it could wow even a Talking Heads skeptic) ever resonate with those who aren't fans of the band being profiled?
JB: That's a great question, and my answer sends me back to the beginning of this conversation. If one of the main motives of any concert film is to replicate the experience of being there, it only makes sense that one's personal response to the music will largely dictate our feelings about the film as a whole (if the music itself is the main attraction, that is, which is truer in these latter films we're discussing than in the cases of Woodstock and Gimme Shelter, in which the music is a secondary part of the "experience"). This can be true of dramatic films, too, of course. If you're turned off by blood and suffering, for example, you'd struggle to appreciate horror, or Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. If you don't like musicals or dancing, you're going to find West Side Story torturous. In those instances, filmmakers are attempting to deliver and/or otherwise conjure something that the viewer happens to find nauseating (for you, in this specific case, that would be Bono and U2). The more successful the filmmaker is, the more uncomfortable the viewer becomes. At least, that's the potential. As you've indicated, there might still be room to recognize or appreciate the artistry of the filmmaking itself, but enjoyment and/or other forms of emotional connectivity would be close to impossible, much the same way that from a public relations standpoint I admire the excellence with which Fox News implements its agenda while at the same time being turned off by that agenda.
Having said that, I think it's revealing that you think Stop Making Sense is "visually inventive" enough to "wow" Talking Heads skeptics, with the unspoken implication that Rattle and Hum doesn't achieve the same. For me, both films are in the same boat. True, the clever constructionist beginning of the Talking Heads concert provides that something extra that takes the pressure off the music itself, so that someone not fond of the Talking Heads' music would have something else to appreciate. But beyond those first five songs, I don't think the filmmaking or the band's stage antics are so compelling that they would overcome a significant distaste for the music. And if someone found Byrne's all-eyes-on-me dance moves and curious wardrobe changes to be "pompous posturing," they'd be right where you are when watching Bono and the rest of U2 in Rattle and Hum. So while it's accurate to say that the Talking Heads concert is more visually inventive in terms of concert staging, what that observation overlooks is that Stop Making Sense never strays from the stage, whereas Rattle and Hum isn't so confined. By saying that, I'm alluding of course to shots of the band's various offstage wanderings, from Harlem to Graceland, but also to the film's use of multiple concert venues, from that tranquil chapel where the band sings "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" with a church choir, to the chaotic Embarcadero Center in San Francisco where the band performs on the back of a flatbed truck, to Sun Devil Stadium in Arizona, where the film breaks from black-and-white to capture the throbbing energy of a generic arena setting in dark, moody color.
Full disclosure: I like U2, and most of this music specifically, and on top of that I once worked in an office connected to Sun Devil Stadium that I can see in this film's dizzying helicopter shots. So in my case Rattle and Hum pulls some strings that produce some nostalgic responses. Recognizing that, no, I don't think this film is a major triumph of its genre, nor is it the kind of thing that would likely convert a U2 skeptic—though I suppose it could. (I'd say the same thing about Stop Making Sense.) But what the film does do well is portray the spirit of a U2 concert, for better or worse, the same way Gimme Shelter presents the unique energy of the Rolling Stones. It also shows how the band's music can be both intimate ("I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" with the choir, or "When Love Comes to Town" with B.B. King) and, yes, "slick arena rock." And, perhaps most interesting of all, in its brief tangents from concert footage it gives us a glimpse of a foreigner's view of American culture circa 1988 that I think is too easily written off as fluffy insert footage. I don't want to imply that the offstage stuff in this film is profound, or that it's anywhere near as compelling as the action around the music in Woodstock and Gimme Shelter. Not by a long shot. But it's worth asking: What does it tell us about America—never mind U2—that two of the must-stop locations on the band's tourist itineraries are the shrines to Martin Luther King Jr., and Elvis Presley? Again, it would be inaccurate to call Rattle and Hum a profound film. But if Woodstock and Gimme Shelter are culture films, in addition to music films, I think Rattle and Hum is, too, even if it's a one-calorie version of those rich classics.
EH: At the