Message To Love Film / DVD
“It was the last great event. Don’t you feel that now? Don’t you stand here and look at this and realize that something has happened here which is never ever going to happen again in the history of the world. I’m not being pretentious. I mean it.”
So said event compere/producer Rikki Farr on the stage during the rain-swept aftermath of the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival in the closing moments of Message To Love, Murray Lerner’s celebrated documentary film of the event.
Looking back on the occasion of the festival’s 50th anniversary, Rikki has arguably been proved right so far. Nothing that’s happened since can really compare to its magnitude.
It still seems mind-boggling that 600,000 people could make the pilgrimage to the Isle of Wight off the English coast for an August Bank Holiday weekend music festival.
That is until you consider the unbelievable bill for the event, which included Jimi Hendrix, Chicago, The Doors, The Moody Blues, The Who, Miles Davis, Joan Baez, Procol Harum, Joni Mitchell, Jethro Tull, Donovan, Sly and the Family Stone, Family, Ten Years After, Tiny Tim, John Sebastian, Emerson, Lake & Palmer (their second ever gig), Free, Rory Gallagher’s Taste, Supertramp, Leonard Cohen, Melanie and many others, including Hawkwind and Pink Fairies in the adjacent Canvas City auditorium.
One of the key strengths of Message To Love is that it never loses a sense of proportion and humour and tells the story of the Festival from multiple perspectives, including a significant focus on the engaging ticketless characters in the “Desolation Row” tented area on the hill overlooking the Afton Farm site and the calls for the event to be declared free.
Although some people I’ve spoken with over the years who were present at the event feel that the film falsely amplifies the conflict between the frazzled event organisers and certain factions regarding the money aspect, I’d argue that it does a fine job in showing that Woodstock was really more of a myth and, just like we all have to, the artists were always looking to make a living and the audience needed to pay for that.
In retrospect, and through Lerner’s lens, the festival represented a watershed moment as the idealism of the 60s was giving way to a more commercially astute approach in the early 1970s, when many artists, including most on the bill here, made vast fortunes and entertained us royally in the process. It actually worked out fine and, ultimately, we were all winners in a sense.
Lerner had previously made the movie Festival! in 1967 about the Newport Folk Festival. His Isle of Wight film crew shot a massive amount of footage in excellent quality, which makes the two hours of material in the film all the more enjoyable and immersive.
It contains several fabulous musical moments, including Jimi Hendrix in great form just three weeks away from his untimely death, Miles Davis pushing musical boundaries with his stellar Bitches Brew era band, an inspired Joni Mitchell eventually overcoming disturbing audience intervention, The Who playing one of their very best recorded sets, plus Jethro Tull and Free at the height of their powers. Several performances have gone on to have separate film and music releases, the most recent being the Joni Mitchell set which is intimately filmed, despite the huge audience, and skillfully takes the viewer on her journey to eventual triumph in such intimidating circumstances.
I was just eight years old at the time of the festival, but I can certainly remember a lot of news stories about it and the sad news of Jimi’s death during the following month (September 18th). I was therefore thrilled when the BBC announced it was going to televise the film on its 25th anniversary in 1995, as I’d always wondered what this then almost mythical event was actually like.
That showing, which I recorded, was the first of many dozens of times I’ve watched the film and I, of course, purchased it the moment it was released on DVD by Castle Music Pictures.
Watching it again almost exactly half a century (!) later, it all looks like another world and who would have thought then that when the festival reached this significant milestone that the whole planet would be in the grip of a pandemic where mass gatherings simply aren’t possible. Sobering and ironic. A planned 50th-anniversary event very sadly had to be cancelled due to the virus.
Another thing that immediately strikes you is how primitive the staging for such an event was in 1970. Indeed, as the film shows, the stage roof actually briefly caught fire at one point. There was a charming naïveté about the whole thing – a million miles from all the health and safety considerations of the modern age.
I guess what it also does is highlight the fact that, with a few minor scuffles here and there, the festival was actually pretty peaceful, if at times tense, affair and a great demonstration of the power of music to bring people together in relative harmony.
It has its detractors, but I consider this to be one of the finest movies of the entire rock era. It’s a shame that the previous year’s more modest event (100,000), headlined by Bob Dylan, watched by three Beatles (minus Paul) among other notable luminaries, wasn’t given the same celluloid treatment. It would have made a fascinating contrast.
Chris Wright | Now Spinning