Home Video Hovel: Festival, by David Bax
Murray Lerner’s Festival, a documentary about the Newport Folk Festival, shows no interest in being a traditional concert film. This much is evident early on as we realize Lerner intends to show us just as much music being played off the stage as on it. Despite the fact that the movie is chock full of the big stars of the time and even today, Lerner isn’t particularly interested in celebrity outside its place in the scene as a whole, even if many of the people studied and interviewed herein don’t feel the same way. This egalitarian approach turns Festival from a movie about folk music to something of a folk movie itself.
Lerner documented four consecutive Newport Folk Festivals, from 1963 through 1966. But, smartly, he chose not to indicate what year each piece was shot. On the contrary, he edits his footage together to make it feel like one chronological weekend at one fest—day followed by night followed by day, etc. He’s even a bit cheeky about it; a montage of slumbering campers at sunrise is set to Joan Baez singing “Colors” (In the morning, when we rise/That’s the time, that’s the time/I love the best).
Festival captures a moment when folk musicians were rock stars; Baez, Pete Seeger and Peter, Paul and Mary are just some of the many recognizable faces who appear. But the most notable is the rock star who happened to be a folk musician. The festival organizers and the festival goers treat Bob Dylan with an uncomfortable, almost laughable reverence. Before one performance, his introduction includes the fawning words, “Every need has a solution,” implying that Dylan himself is some kind of panacea for 1960s tumult. Hero worship is an odd fit with the ethos of folk music and Lerner is there to document the moment it all falls apart and the flock turns on their demigod, ready to commit deicide in the face of his electric betrayal.
As famous and fascinating as Dylan’s plugged-in performance is, it’s perhaps the man leading his backing band who represents the most compelling dialogue roiling underneath the surface of Festival. There’s no doubt of Paul Butterfield’s enormous talent as a blues musician but his white, classically educated, middle class background raises questions about appropriation and where music of the people and music of the moment come together, harmoniously or otherwise. Lerner features plenty of people steeped in folk traditions in his movie, carrying on music that’s been passed down to them across generations. But he spends just as much, if not more, time with young scenesters, leaving it up to the viewers to decide which of them have embraced this music genuinely and which are cultural tourists seeking an “authentic” experience. It’s this clear-eyed awareness on the part of Lerner—as well as the pretty much wall to wall terrific music—that have made Festival such an enduring and invigorating document.
Criterion’s world class transfer is from a 2K scan from the original 16MM camera negative (and some of the dirt removal was done by MTI, whose booth I stopped by at least year’s National Association of Broadcasters convention for a demonstration and was mightily impressed). Being a documentary shot over multiple years, you can expect some variations in the images but the clean-up and stabilization are superb. Also, the increased grain that comes from 16MM is obvious but I would consider that more of a highlight than anything. The soundtrack was reassembled from the original recordings (on ¼-inch mag) and the archival split track audio (on 35MM mag). For a movie about music, the audio is crucial and this Blu-ray knocks it out of the park. I honestly can’t recommend a disc purchase more highly than this one.
Special features include a new making-of, a new featurette of interviews with Lerner, producer George Wein and many of the musicians who played the festival, a collection of unreleased performances from the filming and more.