Festival! / DVD Review
by Kevin Harvey
One of the things you learn watching old films, especially old documentaries, is that things were much cleaner than you thought at the time. The streets were cleaner; there were fewer cars on the road. Looked at now, from across the years, the space around individual people actually looks larger, emptier – unless the films were shot in New York City in the early to mid-70’s when the streets were as grimy as you thought and the fashions were as idiotic as you feared. Keep in mind, the Ford cabinet dressed like Earth, Wind, and Fire and everyone had sideburns! Which brings me back, via fashion, to Festival , a documentary of the Newport Folk Festivals from 1963 to 1966.
It is a film that has much to say for itself: Like the earlier TAMI show, it was the first of its kind. The TAMI Show was just that: a show. Festival was the first concert film to insist that the audience was just as important as the performers on the stage. We were watching ourselves explain ourselves to ourselves. Depending on how you feel about all that followed, this was either a moment of extraordinary generational self-definition or the beginning of an awful lot of trouble. Members of the Jim Kweskin Jug Band are the first people on camera. Mel Lyman is speaking, all bad teeth and cracked sailor cap, and the first whiff of future madness is already in the air. Ernest to a fault, Mel is obviously overjoyed to set the stage for future freaks, a word that we will hear for the first time. He will go on to give us the Avatar newspaper and a small group of people who actually thought Mel was God, as in GOD. But Give Mel credit: he is the proto-UR Hippy and in his messianic happiness a couple of years ahead of the game.
The crowd, rushing to enter the park, comes next. And here is where I sat up. Watching the film on screen in 1967 at the wonderful Exeter Street Theater, the crowd annoyed me. I didn’t care about them; they were pure filler, they took up time better spent on Dylan and Butterfield. I wasn’t there to watch preppies waking up on the beach: I was there to see DYLAN and yet, viewed today, the crowd shocks. One or two people have bad teeth and long hair but the crowd we watch enter the park in Festival could be walking into a Promise Keepers rally. They are neatly dressed; madras abounds; there are pens visible in shirt pockets, one guy is actually carrying his schoolbooks, another, a prim suitcase. A performer on stage will have her purse on her arm! The men wear Barry Goldwater glasses! People discuss conformity and non-conformity; there isn’t a joint in the house! They drive motor scooters and MG’s! They look like they work for National Review. No wonder so many were upset when Dylan plugged in. And yet the film opens with the cracked Mel Lyman.
In 97 black and white minutes we are given clips of nearly 50 performers, not a single number is presented from start to uninterrupted finish. An hour into the film we’ve been given far too much Peter, Paul, and Mary - if like me you find Yarrow an insufferable presence, at least Mary had that wonderful hair/flip and, unlike Yarrow, could often avoid singing flat-something Baez actually picks up on. In a workshop duet with Yarrow she says out of the corner of her mouth: You’re flat. He was. Often. Anyway we are given Square dancers and Cousin Emmy who plays her cheeks and way too much Pete Seeger who hasn’t changed his sweater or shoes in 50 years and who shamelessly attempted to cut the cable on the electric BOB - not, sadly, on camera - but we are also given Baez doing "Farewell Angelina," a bit of Dick and Mimi Farina, an edited Donovan, Buffy St. Marie, Spider John Koerner, a magnificent interview with Mike Bloomfield, a stunning close-up monologue in which the gifted Son House explains the BLUES - a few minutes worth the price the admission - some back of the head shot’s of the Butter band , the always mind/blowing Howlin’ Wolf, and, lastly, the holy grail of film footage, the first available film of Dylan's first electric set. Few moments in the history of performing Arts have meant so much to so many. For a young audience viewing it cold today, it’s easy to miss what an act of in your face bravado it actually was. He was wearing a leather rocker jacket and scratching at a Fender and he was LOUD! (This bothered all the guys with pens in their pockets.) Al Kooper is wearing Bob’s polka dot shirt from the earlier rehearsal and playing an organ, not a washtub! The madras motor scooter set reeled. The "If I had a Hammer" guys flipped out. This was sacrilege, pure and simple. It’s a pity the entire set wasn’t included: We were earlier granted an acoustic daytime performance of "All I Really Want to Do" and some of a solo "Tambourine Man," but it would have been great to watch Seeger and Yarrow flip out on camera. Yarrow earlier asked if he was too loud on stage…too loud? Ah, well. This was before he sang "I Dig Rock N’ Roll Music."
So Festival is what it is: a bridge, a film that will link the transition from "Tambourine Man," and all that it implied and predicted, to Monterey Pop, the film that would open it all, and Gimme Shelter, the movie that would close it.
Another thing you learn watching old documentaries is that words of wisdom often go unnoticed. At one point an older woman addresses the camera: “Hey, 200 years ago this stuff WAS pop.” She is hip; you didn’t realize at the time but she was hip, much hipper than many a member of the madras set. And then you think, while watching Cousin Emmy play her cheeks, none of these people would have made it on American Idol - not Joan, not Judy Collins, not the genius Dylan - none of them would have made it past the first round. And then, suddenly, you miss the world that allowed Cousin Emmy to play her cheeks in public.