Message to Love: The Isle of Wight Festival

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A movie for every day of the year – a good one

17 August

Woodstock ends, 1969

On this day in 1969, the Woodstock Music & Art Fair ended. Billed as “An Aquarian Exposition: 3 Days of Peace and Music” it was held at a dairy farm near White Lake, New York. 32 acts had played to 400,000 people who had paid $18 in advance ($24 at the gate). Richie Havens had been the first act on and Jimi Hendrix was the last act, playing a two hour set that included his version of the Star Spangled Banner – shocking both to those who didn’t want to hear it desecrated and to those who didn’t want to hear anything so patriotic played. In fact Hendrix was playing from 9am to 11am on the morning of 18 August – overruns and flexible scheduling being at least partly what the festival was about. The entire event had originally grown from the notion that Woodstock might be a festival mostly featuring musicians who lived or worked in area, the promoters particularly keen to get Bob Dylan and The Band on board. This was not to be. On the day the festival started Dylan had embarked on the Queen Elizabeth 2 to sail for the UK and the Isle of Wight festival. Woodstock did OK without him.

Message to Love: The Isle of Wight Festival (1997, dir: Murray Lerner)

Murray Lerner’s film was a long time coming. Thanks a to a legal wrangle over who owed what money to whom, the film didn’t see the light of day until 1997. And how fitting that it was money that caused the delay. Because in among the performances by Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, Hendrix, the Who and the Doors, are moments that catch the irony at the heart of the hippie ideal – it’s the straights who make hippiedom possible. But first some details: held a year after Woodstock on a small island off the coast of the United Kingdom, it was the biggest countercultural/music event of its time, with estimates of attendance ranging from 600,000 to 700,000. Along with those already mentioned, Sly and the Family Stone, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Free, Jethro Tull and Miles Davis took part. Not a bad bunch of headliners.

If the Woodstock film catches a festival full of optimism and some complacency, Message to Love catches rock culture just as it moves from being a fun ad hoc arrangement into the new establishment. There is tension everywhere, between those outside who want the fences torn down so the festival can be free, and those inside who want everyone involved to get paid. Breadheads versus dopeheads. While performers are talking about peace and love on stage, their managers are engaged in full-bore argument backstage trying to make sure their man (or woman, in Joan Baez’s notable case) gets his/her due.

Lerner had already made a film about the Newport Folk Festival, so he knew what he was doing and what’s notable about Message to Love is how well shot and put together it is. For sure, Lerner plays up the tension – the locals, the police, the crowd, the performers are all shown at their worst (Joni Mitchell calling the crowd “tourists”; she means “peasants”), and funniest. He has an eye for a performance too. Not that Hendrix or the Doors were that incendiary – and both Hendrix and Jim Morrison would be dead within a year so it’s a shame – but Lerner’s beady eye catches exactly what it’s like to be watching an iconic performer at the wrong time of day (the Doors were on at something like 3am), with inadequate sound, bad weather and a grumpy lead singer. Actually, considering, the Doors are not at all bad.

So, the walls do eventually come down and the paying ticket holders (60,000 or so) are joined by the other 500,000 or so who haven’t paid. Making the best of a bad thing, the organisers decide to declare the Isle of Wight a “free festival”. It’s clear a lot of musicians aren’t going to get their money and that the organisers are heading for bankruptcy. Lerner catches it all in painful detail.
The festival has gone down in history as a desperate financial failure, but the film is a resounding success. Murray has it all as it goes rotten in front of his lens. It’s a good story, a great one in fact. And it’s a great film about the death of the 1960s ideal – funny how many of those there are. And it’s Hendrix, king of the era, whose song provides the film’s ironic title.

Why Watch?

  • A brilliant story, well told
  • Iconic footage
  • Great music
  • Big artistic egos losing their temper

Message to Love: The Isle of Wight Festival – Watch it now at Amazon

© Steve Morrissey 2014

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