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The Conversations: Rock Concert Films

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The Conversations: Rock Concert Films

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.


Rock Concert Films

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.


Rock Concert Films

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.


Rock Concert Films

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.


Rock Concert Films

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.


Rock Concert Films

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.


Rock Concert Films

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.



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