Featured Music: Wednesday, May 15, 2003
Hippie Discs

Some DVD versions of classic rock films offer great additional footage. Others ..


The gang and I recently gathered to watch HBO’s telecast of the Rolling Stones’ Madison Square Garden concert. What a drag it is getting old, indeed. One of my buds flipped to ESPN halfway through with no objections.

It’s not that I actually expected much from the Stones at this point, but, man, I never thought they’d let themselves become sad, tired spectacles. The show, however, did remind me of how much film appearances by bands like the Stones once mattered.

Some of you older readers might understand. For me, it was bicycling to Hulen Mall back in 1979 to catch the first showing of The Kids Are Alright. For you, maybe it was attending a midnight matinee of Let It Be at the old TCU Theater. Such things were major events in those pre-MTV days, when tv and movie appearances by rock stars were highly uncommon.

It seems that the best thing about getting old these days is technology: All those great rock films of yore — from A Hard Day’s Night to Woodstock — have now been turned into rock DVDs. For the most part, these new versions include great additional footage. A few of the DVDs, however, are no better than their videocassette brethren. Consider this your buyer’s guide.

Rock movies sprang up around the time rock began. The early ones were uniformly awful (though some have a certain kitschy appeal now). They were disposable cheapies made by old men who detested the music but figured they’d better cash in before the whole rock fad went the way of the hula-hoop, as it no doubt would. The makers possessed little understanding of the genre or how to present it.

So we got God-awful, plotless Elvis movies, in which the King would suddenly burst into a syrupy ballad for no particular reason. The flipside typically found happening teens fighting to protect the local hangout from destruction at the hands of evil land developers. Of course, the Beach Boys would always happen to wander by and play an on-the-spot concert to save the day.

These early films often featured terrific performances by early rockers (e.g., Little Richard in The Girl Can’t Help It), but the performances were often surrounded by hours of drivel. Performers were largely relegated to functioning as little more than props in their own films.

The Beatles changed all that, as they did so many other things. Having conquered England, Europe, and tv (though not yet the States), the Beatles looked at film as the next logical move. A Hard Day’s Night was that step.

That the Beatles and the distributor of the movie, United Artists, were able to make a cent off the flick was a miracle. The movie was basically a mess, given the tight budget and rushed schedule.

And yet, the film went on to receive Academy Award nominations and garner rave reviews — and not just from 16 Magazine writers, but from serious critics who discussed the flick’s cinematic values as if it were a major entry in the annals of filmmaking. It eventually became a subject of film-school studies and was regarded as the best rock ’n’ roll movie ever.

The decision — based on money, not aesthetics — to go with black and white gives the film an artsy sensibility that, with the inventive hand-held camera shots and cinema verité style employed, moved the film stylistically way beyond any previous pop movie. It wasn’t “great” by any means, but it was the best — and most original — of its time.

Miramax’s digitally restored DVD print looks magnificent. Watching the flick today, you realize that, with A Hard Day’s Night (and, later, Help!), the Beatles perfected making the quintessential rock ’n’ roll movie while, unfortunately, hastening its demise. Most rock bands probably wouldn’t have been able to pull off what the Beatles did, because: a) most rock bands weren’t the Beatles, and b) most rock bands weren’t the Beatles. There was just something about the Liverpool Lads’ mature innocence that played well on the silver screen.

Rock did grow up fast, however, after 1964 or thereabouts, thanks in large measure to the Beatles and a rabble-rouser from Minnesota.

Bob Dylan was originally a folk artist playing to an audience that dismissed rock as kiddie junk. Still, he was as intrigued by the Beatles’ big-beat sound as the Beatles (and other rockers) were by his socially conscious lyrics. It was only a matter of time before rock and folk cross-pollinated. Folk musicians began incorporating rock conceits — specifically, memorable choruses — into their music, while rockers began using folk tricks, specifically socially responsible lyrics.

Don’t Look Back captures Dylan on the cusp of being either a cult item or a superstar. On the heels of his 1965 English tour, his last fully acoustic go-round, the film could be a revelation for music lovers who aren’t acquainted with Dylan and marvel at the big fuss over him. Whatever your tastes, you cannot overlook his genius, which is on full display here.

Though a documentary, Don’t Look Back closely follows A Hard Day’s Night’s technique, right down to the way the camera trails Dylan from his car to his room to his car to his show. Both films also unfold in black and white, employ novel camera shots, which were edgy at the time, and convey a you-are-there immediacy.

Newvideo is the company that has put Don’t Look Back into DVD form. The look and the sound of the disc are crisp. Director D. A. Pennebaker’s commentary sheds light on such unanswered questions as why Dylan threw a fit during the hotel party scene and why Joan Baez and Allen Ginsburg tagged along for the tour.

But the five extra, uncut performances are a bit of a rip-off. The songs are fantastic and would make for a good live album, but they are accompanied on this DVD by no live footage — while the music plays, the screen merely stays stuck on a still picture of the performer. In case Newvideo execs didn’t know, people don’t watch videos just to hear music — they watch videos to hear and see music.

At the time Dylan was rising in popularity, rock was becoming an art form to be taken seriously. The Monterey Pop Festival, modeled after the long-running Monterey Jazz Festival, illustrated how far things had traveled from “Love Me Do.”

Held just days after the release of the Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album, the festival served as a major kickoff to the Summer of Love, formed the blueprint for all future rock festivals, and introduced mainstream America to a number of future stars, including Janis Joplin, Otis Redding, Jimi Hendrix, and the Who. Monterey Pop, also directed by Pennebaker, is arguably the best rock concert film of all.

The boundless optimism within rock, captured at this festival, would curdle soon enough, as would the whole counterculture dream. But watching the film today, it’s easy to see — even if only for a moment — how those hippies believed everything would just keep going up and up. You can read the belief on their shiny faces.

The film, moving at a snappy pace, is a joy. The only drags come courtesy of the perennially excretal Simon & Garfunkel and the esteemed Ravi Shankar. (Just because his talents are beyond reproach doesn’t mean watching him perform on video is the easiest thing in the world to do.) Hell, Monterey even captures the Jefferson Airplane before they started to suck (which would happen relatively soon).

With The Complete Monterey Pop Festival, Criterion gives the video the proper treatment; this is one of the finest DVD music packages yet released. Whereas the original theatrical film runs a mere 79 minutes, Criterion’s version includes optional extras that go on for hours, all in three discs.

The Complete Monterey is a misnomer. Not every second of all three days is accounted for. All the same, Disc 2 offers two hours of previously unreleased footage. The clips run from the great to the pretty bad. David Crosby’s crazed JFK conspiracy rant, Tiny Tim’s wackiness, and the Mama and the Papas’ bizarre, dadaist take on a Beatles’ song are all so awful that they hurt. Which isn’t to say you won’t get a kick out of them.

On the other hand, the Airplane’s “Somebody to Love” and the Who’s extras are superb. Even though the Association, with their out-of-date clothes and white-bread sound, were clearly out of place at this festival, they too turn in a rocking little performance. Unfortunately, though, there’s still no Moby Grape footage and none of the Grateful Dead, simply because the crew ran out of film before the band got halfway through its first song.

Great as Disc 2 is, Disc 3 is the real treat. It contains the complete festival performances of Jimi Hendrix and Otis Redding; their performances could easily rank as each man’s best ever.

Beyond that, there are hours of interviews, original radio spots, and even a function that allows you to view the festival’s program, page by page. Unlike what you’ll see and hear in most rock DVDs, everything here is gold. From stories on the rumored “secret” Beatles appearance (which didn’t happen) to how Redding was originally to open for the Beach Boys (!) — who pulled out at the last second, thereby destroying what little credibility they still had left — the anecdotes and remembrances are rich and fascinating.

If Monterey marked the counterculture’s beginning, Woodstock was its high-water mark. Hippie dreams remained, but much of the movement’s early innocence was fading. Though probably unnoticed by most folks at the time, the cracks were already beginning to form.

Warner Bros.’ Woodstock DVD adds 40 minutes to the film’s five-day length. (OK, just kidding. The original runs three hours.) Still, no Creedence Clearwater Revival. Just more of a tired and worn-out Janis Joplin and an extra Hendrix song. The rest is filled with yawners by Airplane and Canned Heat.

This version documents the event, for sure, but the entire thing runs for days and spotlights too many dull bands and boring crowd scenes. Only the infamous Port-O-San interview really sticks out. Also, Monterey’s hippie chicks were much cuter.

The ’60s dream seemed destined to end. The notion that Woodstock Nation could create a better world appeared to have vanished one night in a spasm of violence and death. At the time, some people considered Altamont the Devil’s payment for the Rolling Stones’ dance with darkness. Today, it looks like an accident of ego and foolish naïveté.

Things were bad from the start. Brian Jones was gone, and, although he’d become a nonentity in the band over his last few years, his presence was missed. Replacement Mick Taylor, though an ace guitarist, was hardly a suitable sub.

Someone punched Mick Jagger in the face. Hell’s Angels, hired for “security,” savagely beat up audience members and Marty Balin of the Jefferson Airplane.

The night culminated in the fatal stabbing of audience member Meredith Hunter by a Hell’s Angel. This happened as the thoroughly freaked Stones were playing “Under My Thumb” (not “Sympathy for the Devil,” as is still widely believed).

The Summer of Love was over.

Strangely, Gimme Shelter remains a wonderful film, at least for its music. Criterion’s Gimme Shelter DVD includes a few extras, like a call-in radio show broadcast the day after the concert. It also has a director’s commentary filled with film-geek techno-speak, the only interesting aspect of which is the admission that the filmmakers should have included footage of B.B. King.

After Altamont came the ’70s. Most of the decade was ruled by bloated stoner rock; the rest of the duration was in punk’s thrall. Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, the Clash, and just about every guy with a guitar filmed the expected celluloid opus. Some were fair; some were foul. At this point, rock’s audience had become so fragmented that no one movie could ever again hope to completely sum up a moment à la Monterey or A Hard Day’s Night.

The VCR’s arrival soon dried up the midnight movie market. What little mystique rock films still had would eventually be stripped away by MTV.

Today, rock films hardly ever appear on the silver screen; they’re usually straight-to-video affairs. So it’s nice to revisit the oldies and see what rock ’n’ roll once meant and probably will never mean again.

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