Kate MacKay: Hello, welcome. I’m Kate MacKay, associate film curator here at Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA). And before I continue, I’d like to give a big thank you to our generous film series sponsors, Robert Riccardi and SB Master, for their support of “It’s only rock ‘n’ roll, our summer-long celebration of the intersection of rock ‘n’ roll and cinema, so thank you very much.
This series runs through Aug. 31, both inside our beautiful Barbro Osher Theater and our outdoor screen, which is really super fun and exciting. We open our screening of Stop Making Sense on our outdoor screen, which literally had people dancing in the street, which is the best you can hope for. This series was inspired by David E. James’ fascinating book, Rock ‘N’ Film: Cinema’s Dance with Popular Music. And we’re delighted to have professor James here today to speak about the book and his research and to show us some clips. This book is available in our bookstore and I can’t recommend it highly enough.
By way of introduction, David E. James is on the faculty of the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California. He’s held academic positions at the University of California, Occidental College, New York University, Korea University, Shanghai University of Science and Technology, the Beijing Film Academy, the National Taiwan University and Vietnam National University, Hanoi. He’s won numerous awards and fellowships. His teaching and research interests currently focus on avant-garde cinema, culture in Los Angeles, East Asian cinema, film in music and working-class culture.
He’s written numerous books and articles, of which I’ll name just a few. There’s The Invaluable Allegories of Cinema, To Free the Cinema, Power Misses and Alternative Projections. He’s also written books on Stan Brakhage and Ken Jacobs.
Without further ado, please join me in welcoming professor David E. James.
David James: Thank you, Kate, for that marvelously generous introduction. Good afternoon everyone, and thank you for coming inside on such a beautiful day. It’s really wonderful outside, so I’m honored you came in out of the sun.
The book Kate mentioned, Rock ‘N’ Film, is about the relations between cinema and popular music from the mid-50s to the mid-70s. It argues that in rock ‘n’ roll’s classic era, popular music was fundamentally a biracial project and that it and the films about it anticipated, reflected, and to some degree participated in the utopian cultural developments of the time, especially the civil rights movement and other youth insurgencies. Some of those political issues will appear in this talk, but since we are in this magnificent palace of cinema, tonight I will be primarily concerned with matters of film historiography. The talk is about 50 minutes long and will be illustrated with some 20 minutes of film clips, which, I am chagrinned to say, you will enjoy much more than my arguments. The first part of the talk reconstructs the theory of the classical Hollywood musical so as to provide my methodological principles. Then we turn to history and to specific films.
Rock ‘n’ roll and films about it have been synergistically interdependent since they emerged simultaneously in the U.S. in the mid-1950s. The first film to feature the new music was Blackboard Jungle, released in March 1955 with Bill Hayley’s song “Rock Around the Clock” playing over its opening credits. Rather than dramatizing music’s anodyne romantic pleasures, it linked rock ‘n’ roll to juvenile delinquency. Together, the music and the delinquents made the film enormously scandalous and enormously successful. Reciprocally, the film made the record an international hit, with estimated eventual sales of more than three million. Hayley’s popularity closely followed Elvis’s emergence in 1954; and with the first wave of rock ‘n’ roll, semi-amateur working-class, especially African American working-class, artists increasingly displaced Tin Pan Alley professionals as the originators of a new common culture. Subsequently, cinema not only represented rock ‘n’ roll; it became one of the most important of the mediums in which the music and its attendant cultural manifestations were developed. Like records, radio, and television, cinema became a principal means of rock ‘n’ roll production, of both the music itself and the entire social gestalt it sustained.
The emergence of rock ‘n’ roll ended the hegemony of the Great American Songbook over U.S. popular music and, with that, the classic musical’s Golden Age ended. After Elvis appeared, there were some stellar traditional musicals, including High Society and Silk Stockings in the 1950s, and others were produced in the next decade: West Side Story, for example, or My Fair Lady, both symptomatically concerned with working-class delinquents.
But by the mid-50s, the Hollywood musical had essentially run its course; so that when its foremost historian, Rick Altman, asked: “When is a musical not a musical?” he immediately answered his question with: “When it has Elvis Presley in it.” Though at least partly facetious, his axiom marks the break between the classic musical and films about rock ‘n’ roll.
The few previous books about rock ‘n’ roll films are arranged either alphabetically or chronologically. Both have their uses. Alphabetic organization, for example, facilitates finding films, and also surprises with unlikely juxtapositions, like that of Gidget with Gimme Shelter. But neither allows the genre a coherently structured and determinate evolution, that is, a history. Film scholars have written histories of this kind for the classic musical, schematizing the developments of sub-genres, structural motifs, and their relation to changes in the media industries generally and the social environment. But typically when they reach the mid 1950s, they abrupt at the impossibility Altman diagnosed.
While recognizing, indeed emphasizing the musical, social, and cinematic ruptures of the mid-50s, Rock ‘N’ Film makes two main historiographical propositions:
First: that the rock ‘n’ roll film does have a structured and coherent evolution: that is, a history.
And second: that this history revolves around the two social implications of music generally that had previously informed the structure and themes of the classic musical: the ideals of romance and of community. That is, the rock ‘n’ roll film ended the classic musical, but also renewed it, reconstructed it for the music of a new era.
The most fundamental of the classic musical’s structural motifs that the rock ‘n’ roll film assimilated is the interplay between narrative and spectacle, that is, the fictional plot and the quasi-documentary song and dance performances that periodically interrupt the narrative. These two elements represent the music in two complementary ways: the audio-visual spectacle of performance shows what the music and musicians look and sound like, while the narrative places them in a social context. The narrative reveals what kind of people are associated with the music, how they use it, and the significance it has for them and for the wider public; the narrative dramatizes an argument about what it means; or, was can say, it theorizes rock ‘n’ roll.
Two of the other principal motifs of the classic musical that scholarship has developed respectively mobilize the two fundamental musical implications of romance and community that I mentioned: these are first, the “dual focus” narrative and second, the desire of commodity musical films, industrially produced to valorize invested capital, to present themselves as folk art. I’ll quickly sketch these arguments, then indicate how they were reconstructed in the rock ‘n’ roll film.
Even though they usually include a heterosexual romance, the narratives of Hollywood films typically focus on one main male protagonist, following his setbacks and successes to a resolution that coincides with the closure of the other narrative elements. In contrast, Rick Altman again argued, that the musical typically contains two, paired protagonists, a boy and a girl representing antithetical values and between whom the narrative alternates to create a “dual focus” — you see a bit of his story, then a bit of hers–that is successfully resolved in the marriage of the pair and of the values they each represent. Busby Berkeley’s mid-1930s “backstage musicals,” for example, typically concern a leading boy and girl performing in a Broadway show; in the process they become romantically involved, so that their pledge of love in the show’s concluding songs also signifies the same commitment in the characters’ off-stage lives. Both narrative lines are resolved simultaneously: the one within the theatrical musical show and the one in the film about the staging of it.
A film of this kind about a theatrical show — a show musical — inevitably generates patterns of similarity and difference between itself and the show it depicts. These intertextual references produce what another prominent historian of the musical categorized as the “self-reflective musical.” Jane Feuer argued that in the sub-genre of musicals involving “kids (or adults) ‘getting together and putting on a show,’” the represented show functions ideologically to repress the audiences’ self-consciousness of the commodity nature of the film about them and of the alienated social relations that a commercial film sustains. Using a then-contemporary distinction between “folk art” and “mass art,” she argued that the depiction of the musical show as “folk art” conceals its nature as capitalist “mass art”: “The Hollywood musical becomes a mass art which aspires to the condition of folk art, produced and consumed by the same integrated community.” Especially after the late 1940s, the shows represented in musicals tended not towards Berkeley’s Broadway theater, but to earlier American agricultural communities; they often portrayed the singers and dancers as amateurs and emphasized spontaneity and populist performance: Oklahoma! (Fred Zinnemann, 1955), is exemplary. These form a sub-genre distinct from the 1930s backstage show musical: the folk musical that, Feuer argues, “reeks with nostalgia for America’s mythical communal past even as the musical [film] itself exemplifies the new, alienated mass art.”
Let us note at the outset, that issues around the relation between unalienated folk art and alienated capitalist culture are especially contentious in rock ‘n’ roll, which involves extensive popular, amateur practice and often has strong ideological investments in being understood as folk culture, but is also inseparable from industrial production and its attendant commodity relations.
OK, so now we’ll turn to actual rock ‘n’ roll films and I’ll attempt to demonstrate the coherent evolution of these three motifs: the relation between musical spectacle and the narrative in which it is set; the dual focus narrative and the centrality of romance in it; and the tensions, indeed contradictions, in capitalist films about what aspires to be in some sense community or folk music.
Questions about unalienated folk music were not, however, a concern in the first wave of films about rock ‘n’ roll. These were inaugurated in March 1956 with Rock Around the Clock (Fred F. Sears) again featuring Bill Hayley and his scandalous song. Known as “jukebox musicals,” these low-budget exploitation quickies were often based on Alan Freed’s radio and theater shows, and like them, they unapologetically envisaged the essential form of rock ‘n’ roll to be, not live performance, but commodity records; these records sustained the filmic spectacles of performers, most of them black, lip-syncing to their current hits. The narratives placed these performances in a limited dramatic context that nevertheless did sometimes mobilize an attenuated form of the dual focus; one, for example, Go, Johnny Go! (1959) concerned a boy singer and a girl singer who becomes his fan and eventually abandons her own career to marry him. Rather than disguising rock ‘n’ roll’s commercial production by proposing it as folk music, these narratives emphasized all its various industrial components, and usually they culminated in a televised grand finale in which stars lip-synced to their hit records and where rock ‘n’ roll was positioned as a subsector of broadcast TV. This created a media hierarchy dominated by Hollywood: rock ‘n’ roll is contained in television, and television is itself contained in cinema.
In place of any rock ‘n’ roll folk community, the jukebox musicals were typically concerned with the skein of interconnected social issues around juvenile delinquency that dominated white public discussion of early rock ‘n’ roll: its associations with working-class hoodlums, promiscuous teenage sex, and especially fear of African Americans and race-mixing: most crucially the fear of a black boy with a white girl. No less an expert on popular music than Frank Sinatra made the conjunction between musical and social delinquency explicit: “Rock ‘n’ roll … is sung, played and written for the most part by cretinous goons and by means of its almost imbecilic reiteration, of sly, lewd, in … fact, dirty lyrics … it manages to be the martial music of every side-burned delinquent on the face of the earth.” Although Blackboard Jungle had exploited precisely these associations between the music and teenage hoods, the 1950s jukebox musicals that followed it typically began by quoting a Sinatra-like assertion by a newspaper editor or a civic leader; but only took it as a point of departure for narratives that disproved it. While the spectacles presented some of the best, even dangerously incendiary, performers like Little Richard and Chuck Berry, the narratives eventually exculpated and justified rock ‘n’ roll by demonstrating that it was only innocuous teenage fun like any other form of media.
I’m going to show two clips of the same song: the first is from Blackboard Jungle that exploits the connection between Bill Hayley’s song and delinquency: the second is from the conclusion to Rock Around the Clock, the first jukebox musical — named after his song; it occurs in the televised finale in a Hollywood theater, just after the dual focus has been completed by the announcement of the marriage between the producer who discovered rock ‘n’ roll and a girl dancer; you’ll see that working-class juveniles have been transformed into middle-class adult night-clubbers, delinquency has been sanitized and assimilated to the culture industry.
CLIP I: Blackboard Jungle and Rock Around Clock
In less than a year, Hollywood had shifted the meaning of rock ‘n’ roll from social menace to harmless entertainment.
The sanitization of rock ‘n’ roll and its easy incorporation into capitalist culture continued through the 1950s and, at least in Hollywood films, though the 1960s. The most crucial instance was Elvis, whose films — Hall Wallis is supposed to have said — were “the only sure thing in Hollywood.” In his early music, Elvis combined the white assimilation of black music together with the secularization of his own gospel heritage parallel to the achievements of Little Richard and Ray Charles, and so transformed U.S. popular culture. But in his post-army films of the 1960s, his manager conspired with studio producers to evacuate his musical and social complexity in the most egregious destruction of rock ‘n’ roll’s rebellious energy. But three of the four films he made in Hollywood before going into the army — Loving You, Jailhouse Rock and King Creole — mobilized much of rock ‘n’ roll’s racial complexity and unruly utopian insurgency. All three featured him as the only performer, and so replaced the multi-artist format of the jukebox musicals by a musical version of the biopic — what I call the “rise to stardom” motif that had been a staple of Hollywood films about aspiring actors since the 1920s.
The best of them and Elvis’s personal favorite was King Creole (Michael Curtiz, 1958). Casting him in the mold of 50s delinquent teenagers, especially his own idols, James Dean and Marlon Brando, it has him expelled from high school for kissing a gangster’s moll. Drawn into a gang of hoodlums in New Orleans, he accidentally becomes complicit in the nearly fatal mugging of his own father. In the reversal that introduces the second act, he antagonizes the boss gangster by greeting the moll. When she explains that she once heard him sing, the suspicious gangster forces him to prove her claim, which he does by lip-syncing to his recording of Leiber and Stoller’s adaptation of Willie Dixon’s classic, “Hoochie Coochie Man.”
CLIP II: King Creole
The scene is consummate: Elvis is gloriously badassed; black music and black dance are pivotal and black musicians are present– for the only time in Elvis 31 features; and the spectacle is perfectly integrated into the narrative, clarifying its themes and propelling the plot forward — a perfect illustration of the possibilities of the integrated musical and of classic Hollywood film composition.
The jukebox musicals and the “rise to stardom” structure into which Elvis transformed them migrated to England as immediately as did the music itself. Just six months after Elvis’s first film, Love Me Tender, in November 1956, for example, The Tommy Steele Story, a biopic about the first of the UK Elvis imitators was released. The UK films were generally superior to all but Elvis’s own 50s films, and more candidly confronted issues of teenage delinquency and alienation.
The best of the series, however, revived the jukebox musicals’ strategy of demonstrating that rock ‘n’ roll was socially benign. Richard Lester’s It’s Trad Dad! (1963) followed US precedents in beginning with a small-town mayor attacking the teenagers’ music; this prompts a boy and a girl singer to prove its innocuity by persuading musicians to perform in a televised free concert in the town square. The film fully dramatizes the industrial production of records and all the commercial aspects of rock ‘n’ roll; but the finale presents an ostensibly live performance that emphasizes the music’s communitarian “folk” potential. As the narrative brings the male and female ingénues together, it includes their romance within the larger celebration of an urban community in which young and old, musicians and people, television cameramen and even the mayor and police all spontaneously dance and sing together in an open-air carnival. The film’s utopianism is, of course, deeply ideological and, like the classic folk musical in Feuer’s account, its depiction of a social event where music appears to transcend commodity relations conceals the production of such relations in the film itself.
In his next film, A Hard Day’s Night, Lester made even more crucial innovations that further displayed his skill in visualizing rock ‘n’ roll spectacle as emancipatory popular culture and his subordination of narrative momentum to spectacular performance. Two issues were primarily important in the Beatles’ music that the film depicts: their modifications in the mode of musical production, and its performance by a group rather than an individual.
In their earlier covers of US rock ‘n’ roll, the Beatles followed artists like Elvis who performed material written by others. But they quickly switched to the precedent of U.S. rock ‘n’ roll musicians like Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly in writing their own. This marked them as the first major rock ‘n’ roll artists to be essentially autonomous as a group though, within that, integrally dependent on each other: a transformation in the social relations of the mode of musical production– and in its social implications. Eventually their collectivity was able to sustain the popular belief that their music’s personal and even generational expressivity transcended its commercial production and dissemination. As the Beatles’ success was followed by that of the Rolling Stones, the Byrds, and especially the Grateful Dead and other San Francisco groups, such communal, quasi-folk, counter-cultural production became the norm. In this respect, the Beatles’ significance for sixties’ utopianism and the ideal of folk authenticity can hardly be overemphasized.
Well, the Beatles are a new family group. They are organized around the way they create. They are communal art. They are brothers and, along with their wives and girlfriends, form a family unit that is horizontal rather than vertical, in that it extends across a peer group rather than descending vertically like grandparents-parents-children … if you want to begin to understand our culture, you can start by comparing Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.
The Beatles’ innovations in the mode of musical production were manifest in the A Hard Day’s Night soundtrack album, their first to be comprised entirely of original compositions. And the film itself correspondingly generated new possibilities for cinematic narrative that became seminal for the rock ‘n’ roll film. Any Beatles film had to accommodate four leading but ostensibly equal characters, all playing themselves as Beatles rather than assuming dramatic personae as did Elvis. The initial conception of the film had included four separate episodes distinguishing their individual personalities; but though an afternoon erotic affaire involving Paul was shot, it was cut, and of them, only Ringo’s lonely derive in which he hooks up with, not a girl, but a truant schoolboy, remains.
Cinema had previously been able to find Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, but the Beatles’ identity and autonomy as a group preempted the separate romantic episodes that could have generated four individual dual focus structures. Instead, the narrative events largely infantilize and de-eroticize them, dramatizing them as errant English schoolboys controlled in an exclusively homosocial world by a male mum and dad, who try to make them stay in at night and do their homework of answering fan letters. Testosterone-driven delinquency is displaced onto grandpa, the only real male teenager in the narrative. The other fundamental plot motif is the horde of maenadic fans, a group of girls in manic pursuit of the Beatles as a group of boys. As it extends the narrative, the girls’ pursuit and the boys’ avoidance of them re-stage the dual focus as a romance, not between two individuals, but between two collectivities, the fans and the musicians. And, as in the classic musical, the dual focus is resolved in the final performance, where a hyperbolically intense and sexualized aural and visual consummation is achieved. In doing so, it transforms the narrative fiction into documentary spectacle: playing themselves, the Beatles and the fans realize the dual focus as social event joining them all in an ecstatic commonality.
CLIP III: A Hard Day’s Night
This brilliant audio-visual composition was created by the editor John Jympson from footage shot by DP Gilbert Taylor. Taylor used six cameras, three on the stage and three in the audience, shooting from a variety of positions on all three spatial axes, and so was able to foreground diagonals in all three dimensions; he mixed lenses of many different focal-lengths from extreme close-ups on the singers’ lips to wide shots of both the stage and audience, all elaborated with combinations of backlighting and high key lighting, and zooms and moving-camera shots. Editor Jympson beautifully developed Taylor’s footage and filmicly positioned the band in a dynamic interaction with the fans, all within the apparatus of industrial musical production and television broadcasting; both look back to Rock Around the Clock, though now they are much more sophisticated. The consummation of the film’s overall reconstruction of the dual focus narrative as a social development is still inhibited by the proscenium arch and the division of labor it marks; still Lester’s conclusion provided a model that allowed subsequent films to project the rock concert and then the rock festival as non-alienated bi-racial countercultural folk communities, uniting musicians and fans in mutual adoration.
Released in London in July 1964, A Hard Day’s Night to all intents and purposes ended the jukebox musical and pivotally reconfigured the rock ‘n’ roll film. Six weeks earlier Elvis’s best post-army feature, Viva Las Vegas, which of all his films most closely resembled the classic folk musical and its dual focus narrative opened in New York, while a few months later, a documentary film, The T.A.M.I. Show, opened in Los Angeles. The T.A.M.I. Show resembled jukebox musicals based on Freed’s theater shows, and it too had vestiges of the new form of dual focus introduced in A Hard Day’s Night: the musicians and fans converge separately on the auditorium where, though still physically separated by the stage, they are rapturously united in the music. It also brought together the white British invasion bands with their black US rhythm and blues models; it opened with Chuck Berry jamming on his hits with Gerry and the Pacemakers and ended with sets by James Brown and the Rolling Stones, who are finally joined on stage by all the earlier musicians, all dancing together as in It’s Trad Dad!. But unlike that and A Hard Day’s Night, the music was performed live. Even though the concert it depicted was organized specifically for the film, The T.A.M.I. Show was entirely documentary; in this it prefigured the cinema vérité concert documentaries that in the mid-1960s replaced the feature jukebox musicals as the dominant form of rock ‘n’ roll film.
Rock ‘n’ roll’s associations with delinquency were transformed at the beginning of the 1960s, when commercial rock ‘n’ roll lost its cultural authority in both the U.S. and the UK to the revival of folk music. This lasted until the reciprocal influence of the Beatles and Bob Dylan shaped the new music, now usually “folk rock” or “rock” rather than “rock ‘n’ roll”: first, the British Invasion and then, the San Francisco Renaissance that nurtured and became the primary cultural component of the late-60s countercultures. In this 60s music, the negative social associations of 50s rock ‘n’ roll were positively transvalued. African Americans were idealized; promiscuity became regenerative free love; delinquency became principled resistance to US imperialism and capitalist alienation; and drugs became a route to higher truths. Hollywood was not able to assimilate either the new music or its social implications, and their cinematic form became instead cinema vérité documentary films, independently produced outside the studios. Taking advantage of recent technological developments, Direct Cinema privileged an observational, “uncontrolled” objectivity that took the form of minimally edited continuous long-takes. And instead of sanitizing rock ‘n’ roll as an inoffensive and manageable subordinate component of the culture industry, Direct Cinema documentaries increasingly allied themselves with the counter-culture’s commitment to emancipatory social reform and hence with the liberatory elements of rock. Three of these documentaries were especially important: Dont Look Back (D.A. Pennebaker, 1967) about Bob Dylan’s first English tour; Monterey Pop (Pennebaker, 1968), about the first major rock festival; and Woodstock (Michael Wadleigh, 1970).
In these, the conventions of the classic musical that had continued vestigially in the 50s rock ‘n’ roll films were fundamentally reconstructed and re-affirmed. Since the films were documentary all through, the formal and diegetic division between the quasi-documentary spectacle of musical performance and the fictional narrative in which it was set was eroded; and the narrative did not break for the spectacle of performance but continued through it. This diegetic continuity contributed to the forceful revival of the “dual focus,” but in the new form created by Lester; the structuring erotic relationship between the classic and the jukebox musicals’ ingénues was reconstructed as an extensive social relationship between the musicians and the audience in the unalienated community of the counterculture.
So taken as a sequence, the Direct Cinema documentaries progressively developed alternating narrative lines that bring the musicians and the fans to the concert separately, then bond them together in a reciprocal, all-pervasive, culturally affirmative “love” that cancels the differences between them. In the first, Don’t Look Back, the audience is hardly seen, and off-stage activity is restricted to Dylan and his entourage. In the second, Monterey Pop, montages gingerly bring the fans and performers together, and in the performance scenes, shot/ counter shot figures put them in dynamic interaction, both structures, of course, undermining Direct Cinema’s axiomatic unedited long-takes. And in Woodstock, the unfolding and eventually consummated egalitarian union of musicians and fans is thematically and narratively central, and again cemented in dense non-vérité montages.
The consummation of the dual focus in the love shared between performer and audience is first announced Monterey Pop, where it is symptomatically significant since it is staged as a relationship between a black musician and white fans. In the film, Otis Redding sings two songs, the upbeat “Shake” and a dramatically agonized “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long.” In both, the cinematography and editing are absolutely different from both the classic film language of King Creole and Lester’s dense, dynamic montages. The first song is mostly covered in a single long take from center front showing him performing before an abstract liquid-projection light show, and the second is another long take from rear stage directly into the lights. Though they are visually very different, both shots are classic long-takes whose great beauty reflects the cameraman’s — Pennebaker himself — skilled response to the performance in front of him. But in Redding’s remarks between the songs, a brief interpolated wide shot is edited in that holds both him and the audience in the same frame for a few seconds as he declares their commonality:
CLIP IV: Monterey Pop
“This is the love crowd, right? We all love each other, don’t we?” Following immediately, “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” rather than abandoning love, affirms its continuity: “Too long to stop now.” Otis is followed by Jimi Hendrix, who performs “Wild Thing,” introducing it as “the combined English and American national anthem”: the transatlantic countercultural commonality is complete, and the road to Utopia is clear.
Woodstock, at last, focuses equally on the fans and the musicians. Separate camera crews were assigned to each, documenting them arriving separately and coming together. There, to the accompaniment of Richie Havens singing “Freedom,” half a million young people break down the fences. Their act is seen not as delinquency, but as the liberation of commodity relations into an un-alienated folk commonality, the creation of a free festival in which all present are reciprocal participants, “reek[ing] with nostalgia for America’s mythical communal past,” as Feuer put it. Many other formal and narrative elements in the film dramatize this achievement. For example, after the fence comes down, one of the promoters declares that, though the event is a “financial disaster,” this is are irrelevant for “These people are communicating with each other … It has nothing to do with money.” And as night falls, David Crosby — echoing Otis– brings the dual focus to its consummation, telling the freaks, “you people have got to be the strongest bunch of people we ever saw. . . we just love you, we just love you.”
So it appears in the festival documented in the film. But what of “the musical [film] itself,” that exemplification of “the new, alienated mass art.”
The Woodstock festival was conceived by a wealthy business student who on his 21st birthday received $400,000 as the first installment of an inheritance of several million. He thought of the festival as “an easy way to make money, have fun and ‘do something meaningful’ with [his] life,” but mismanagement and a string of unforeseen developments defeated the moneymaking component. The fans’ liberation of the festival allowed its ideological elevation into a true folk event “produced and consumed by [Feuer’s] same integrated community.” It also produced a $1.6 million loss for the promoters.
But cinema came to the rescue, kind of. Very briefly: Critical acclamation for the film allowed Warner Bros, the distributors, to raise admission prices to a then-unheard of four and even five dollars — this when tickets to the festival itself had been only seven dollars a day. Its first release returned $16.4 million and in the next decade it earned $50 million. The three–record soundtrack album, released earlier with a list price of $14.98, sold two million copies in the first year — that’s another $30 million, in sum, almost a hundred million dollars. But 95% of this money accrued not to the festival’s financiers, who did not break even until many years later. Rather it went to the capitalist film studio and saved Warners from bankruptcy.
Woodstock, then, fully reconstructed the classic musical’s three structural motifs : spectacle and narrative still order the film, but narrative has been spectacularized and the spectacle integrated in to it; Altman’s “dual focus” narrative is recreated not as a matter of private romance, but as a comprehensive cultural ritual uniting musicians and audience in a redemptive community based on love; and the “humanistic ‘folk’ relations [depicted] in the film … [noted by Feuer appear to] act to cancel out the economic values and relations” associated with the film — though not completely. In fact, many people protested that paying to watch the film contradicted what had become the folk nature of the festival; Jane Feuer herself, in fact, notes that when she went to see the film, spectators “picketed the theater, refusing to pay admission … because they were in it.”
Over the next years, these contradictions could no longer be kept out of rock ‘n’ roll or rock ‘n’ roll films, and films began to depict the failure of the music’s utopian expectations that the first counterculture documentaries had celebrated. Murray Lerner’s Message to Love, a documentary of the 1970 Isle of Wight festival, for example, emphasized the venality of the promoters and highlighted the hostility among the freaks, musicians, promoters, and locals that Woodstock had synthesized into a harmonious, mutually adoring commonality. And Lerner claimed that he had designed the film specifically to reveal “the contradiction between the message of the music and the commercialism of the music business.” This other vision of the counterculture, not of peace and love, but of decadence, exploitation, and violence, had been and continued to be the dominant theme of films about the Rolling Stones: Gimme Shelter and especially Cocksucker Blues.
The Stones’ dystopian films are the next stage in the argument, but tonight let’s end on Woodstock’s utopian moment. One of the film’s highlights is the montage set to Santana’s “Soul Sacrifice,” initially blocked out by Martin Scorsese and completed by Stan Warnow. The clip begins with Carlos Santana’s second solo, with Mike Wadleigh’s long-take of him in the center of a triple-screen. Though the musicians are foregrounded, the montage interweaves Santana himself, the other band members, individuals in the audience, and the audience at large into a diverse but interdependent collectivity. The interlaced shots of audience drumming makes them participants in the music and their dancing integrates them into the audio-visual spectacle, rather than positioning them as merely observers of it.
But also note how, within the montage of the collective dual focus narrative, the editors inserted a metonymic recollection of its original individual form, and did so in the terms most crucial for rock ‘n’ roll: the romance between a white woman and, if not a black man, then certainly a brown-eyed handsome man. Please note the first close-up, the blonde girl seems unresponsive, but interpolated single-screens of Santana himself in extremis bring her to an exuberant frenzy in which, mirrored in close-up on either side of the guitarist, she physically enacts his music.
CLIP V: Woodstock
As I said, after this, things fall apart. The Stones’ films emphasize violence and in Gimme Shelter, the murder of a black man. And the music splits into separate black and white lines, with the films reflecting the split: blaxploitation and Lady Sings the Blues on the one hand and Nashville on the other. Both of them conclude with the dystopian destruction of the now-female heroines. But Woodstock preserves a moment where social, musical and filmic Utopia all coincide, a monument to cinema’s dance with popular music.
We do have time for a couple of questions.
Kate and I felt that it would be a great idea to end by showing you a clip from a work that we couldn’t get for the screening series itself, but which is one of the greatest of the rock ‘n’ roll films. I mentioned it very briefly, The T.A.M.I. Show, made in 1964 by Steve Binder, who four years later also saved Elvis’s career and reputation with the Comeback Special. Binder is a remarkable filmmaker, who has not received anything like the recognition he deserves, and T.A.M.I. is remarkable in many ways. As I mentioned, it resembled jukebox musicals based on Freed’s theater shows, and it too had vestiges of the new form of dual focus introduced in A Hard Day’s Night. But its fundamental importance depends on its real-time photography and editing of performances by some of the best of the white British invasion bands with their black U.S. rhythm and blues models; it opens with Chuck Berry jamming on his hits with Gerry and the Pacemakers and ends with sets by James Brown and the Rolling Stones, who are finally joined on stage by all the earlier musicians, all dancing together in a utopian image of transracial solidarity.
Binder had for several years produced daily episodes of both the Steve Allen show, and by this time he was uniquely experienced and skilled. For T.A.M.I., he used Allen’s crew with four large cumbersome RCA studio cameras, three of them on mobile pedestals: two of them on the sides used mostly for close-ups and one from the rear of the stage facing into the audience, with the fourth mounted on a crane in the audience. All were controlled by their operators who Binder could direct to zoom, pan, and move fluidly around the set, providing him at every moment with a choice of four shots from extreme close-ups to wide angles of the ensemble dancing. In a makeshift control room, he edited these video feeds onto high resolution video that was later transferred to 35-mm film for theatrical release film. His sophistication in live-performance filming was unprecedented. His responsiveness to song structure and the performers’ dancing is so dexterously coordinated that, working live, he was able to cut on action and beat as precisely as John Jympson had done with Gilbert Taylor’s footage for A Hard Day’s Night. His remarkable abilities are perhaps most evident in James Brown’s set. Though Brown had been the sole artist who had refused to rehearse, Binder still was able to anticipate the star’s movements across the stage and among his back-up dancers, and at rhythmically crucial points he was able cut exactly between wide shots of Brown dancing and close-ups of his face. Spontaneously and in real time, then, Binder played the performers and the entire televisual apparatus as if it were a musical instrument, so as to represent the audience and performers as a united commonality.
So as you watch and listen to this, please try to notice two performances: James Brown’s, which is recognized as one of the very best rhythm and blues performances ever filmed. But also Steve Binder’s manipulation of multiple forms of rock ‘n’ roll visuality. Only together can we recognize this superlative instance of cinema’s dance with rock ‘n’ roll.
CLIP VI. The TAMI Show