“Festival” at “Monday Nights with Oscar” – July 18, 2011
On July 18 The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, as part of its monthly series, “Monday Nights with Oscar,” presented a newly struck 35mm print of director Murray Lerner’s 1967 Oscar nominated documentary, “Festival.” “Festival” covers the Newport Folk Festival from 1963 – 1966 and showcases performances by folk singing trio “Peter, Paul and Mary,” Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Pete Seeger and many others. After the screening there was a Q&A with Lerner and singer Peter Yarrow, of “Peter, Paul and Mary.” Yarrow, guitar in hand, began the Q&A by leading the audience in “Down By the River” and then segued into “This Land is Your Land.” “Monday Nights with Oscar” was produced, and the discussion moderated, by Patrick Harrison.
While this was my first time seeing “Festival,” many thoughts came to mind. I was struck by how the film was simultaneously a time capsule of a certain period and yet still relevant and exciting, especially when seen with an attentive audience that broke into applause after many of the songs. I also reflected on how nice it was to see a documentary that was shot on film, and black and white film at that. Almost all documentaries are now shot digitally, for economic reasons.
Great documentaries have been shot digitally, but seeing the film grain, and the black and white images, on a big screen, gave “Festival” a cinematically authentic look that contemporary documentaries lack. Lerner explained that he did not like the 16mm color print stock that was available at the time and chose to shoot on black and white film. Lerner also pointed out that he thought the film’s aesthetic was right in black and white. Lerner said that he self-financed “Festival,” describing it as “ a labor of love.”
Lerner did much of the cinematography himself and explained that he liked holding on close-ups of the singers’ faces as they performed. The result is that we become part of the rhythm and achieve an intimacy with the performers that we do not have with contemporary music films, and music documentaries, that usually employ an egregious, and unnecessary, high number of quick cuts.
In addition to documenting the songs, “Festival” also consists of interviews with audience members and performers, and captures many candid moments. Baez, surrounded by a crush of kids wanting her autograph, which she gives willingly, is asked if she is getting writer’s cramp. She replies, “No, I’m getting a bloated ego.” Mike Bloomfield and Son House expound on their theories about the Blues. A Dylan fan comments that Dylan has improved his enunciation (since when?). Johnny Cash performs “I Walk the Line.” An unidentified group of cloggers do an amazing synchronized dance routine. Dylan, about to perform, realizes that he does not have a harmonica. He asks the crowd for “an E harmonica.” Almost immediately we hear the sound of harmonicas hitting the stage. Dylan picks up one of them and launches into “Mr. Tambourine Man.”
Lerner described his theme for the four years of concerts that he filmed (over 100 hours of footage that was edited down to 95 minutes) as “Young people trying to use music express themselves.” Yarrow added, “There was a real need to make sense out of a world that wasn’t making sense.” “The music became the word,” Yarrow continued, “The spirit was emancipating.” Harrison observed that music has the power to unite people, to which Yarrow responded, “It was an act of faith to participate in this music; a way of saying that we don’t want artificiality.”
On August 8, “Mondays with Oscar” will present the 1980 comedy “Airplane” which, at 31 years old, is still truly hilarious and has never been topped. For more information please visit http://www.oscars.org.