This article appeared in the June 29, 2023 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writing. Sign up for the Letter here.
Jazz on a Summer’s Day (Bert Stern, 1959)
Murray Lerner’s Festival (1967), a film documenting the annual Newport Folk Festival between the years 1963 and 1966, begins with a group of beatnik musicians sitting under a tree. The Jim Kweskin Jug Band starts to play, but suddenly, in the middle of their performance, the camera cuts to black. One of the members remarks in voiceover that the band is interested in making music, while the filmmakers are interested in making a movie. Mel Lyman, the band’s harmonica player, offers a counterpoint. “We’re all playing machines,” he says. Pointing to the camera, he continues, “If you really blow on your little machine there, you’re playing music too.”
Festival screened a couple weeks ago in Los Angeles as part of the Academy Museum’s latest series, Summer of Music: Concert Films 1959–2020, which presents an array of films that embrace, confront, and question both possibilities suggested in Lerner’s doc: the concert film as an artwork separate from the music it captures, with its own unique objectives; and the concert film as a sympathetic, expressive mode that can work together with musical performances to achieve an audiovisual symbiosis.
The titles in the series range from pure nonfiction to poetic and dramatic (or even fantastical) works, with some of the best selections combining elements of both. Bert Stern’s Jazz on a Summer’s Day (1959) is partly a documentary and partly a sophisticated exercise in “visual music” that strives to be as formally subtle and nimble as the horns and voices we hear on the soundtrack. The film, which takes as its subject the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, is the oldest title in the series. The Academy Museum’s Interim Director of Film Programs K.J. Relth-Miller told me that it represents “the ultimate jazz concert film,” and that “we also think of it as one of the first examples of that style of live performance documentary.” Legends such as Theolonious Monk, Chuck Berry, Dinah Washington, Mahalia Jackson, Anita O’Day, and Louis Armstrong give breathtaking performances, which are interspersed with abstract scenes reflecting jazz’s modernism (images of water represent the music’s unpredictability and improvisatory dimension) and comic vignettes (a beer party and a band of jazz hepsters cruise Newport in a jalopy).
Like Lerner’s Festival, D.A. Pennebaker’s Monterey Pop (1968) sets out more explicitly to capture a sense of the zeitgeist, focusing on the emergence of American counterculture into the mainstream. Interviews with artists and concertgoers help articulate the broader social significance of what we’re seeing in these films. In Festival, the words of the incomparable Son House about the nature of the blues are intercut with guitarist Mike Bloomfield’s (younger and whiter) perspective, offering a discursive framework to the music. In another moment, which articulates the festival’s raison d’être, a member of the Sacred Harp Singers explains that they “believe in the idea that the average man and woman can make [their] own music. In this machine age, it doesn’t all have to come out of a loudspeaker. You can make it yourself.”
Stylistic embellishment takes a backseat in these films; instead, they by-and-large faithfully capture the exhilarating experience of being in the presence of the finest and most idiosyncratic performers of the 20th century: Peter, Paul, and Mary earnestly plead for a better world; Jimi Hendrix paints with feedback before setting his guitar ablaze; Ravi Shankar hypnotizes; Hugh Masekela dazzles and energizes; Janis Joplin breaks hearts; and Howlin’ Wolf reaches down into the audience’s gut with his raw vocal power and towering stage presence. “We really are turning our David Geffen cinematic space into a rock-concert space for the duration of the summer,” Relth-Miller said. There are moments, however, when filmic form and live performance unite to create something new, like with Otis Redding’s onstage rendition of “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” in Monterey Pop: shooting the singer from behind, with the stage lights silhouetting his head, Pennebaker allows Redding’s voice to soar into a kind of transcendental abstraction.
Many of the films also double as artist documentaries, offering insight into the process of music-making and the vision of the performers. In Peter Clifton and Joe Massot’s The Song Remains the Same (1976), Led Zeppelin plays Madison Square Garden in 1973, when the band was at the height of its powers. A nearly 15-minute narrative introduction precedes footage of the concert, showing the four band members receiving telegrams informing them about the impending engagement. The performance itself is interspersed with vignettes detailing the band members’ respective personalities: John Bonham is depicted as a daredevil, while Jimmy Page (a noted fan of the occult) is shown climbing a mountain to meet a wizard. One of the more recent films in the series, Nimród Antal’s Metallica: Through the Never (2013), takes this peek-behind-the-scenes concept to an extreme, designing an entire video game–like scenario around the concert. Scenes involving a young man, played by Dane DeHaan, who is on a mission to retrieve a vehicle stranded in a city gone mad are interspersed with glimpses of the concert, where, in a staged incident, a large part of the set crashes down, causing the lights to go out. The band soldiers on with a more stripped-down setup, ostensibly getting back to their punky thrash-metal “roots,” and offering a reminder of just how far they’ve come.
The best films in the series are those in which music becomes a means to understand a broader historical or political inflection point. Jeffrey Levy-Hinte’s Soul Power (2008) documents “Zaire 74,” the three-day concert in Kinshasa that was set to precede the “Rumble in the Jungle” boxing match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman (and carried on despite the fight’s five-week postponement due to Foreman’s training injury). The documentary imparts a vivid feel of the spiritual homecoming that the festival represented for the African-American artists involved: the 13-hour plane ride to Zaire unfolds like something between a party and a jam session, with Cuban-American singer Celia Cruz leading the festivities. Onstage in Kinshasa, sweat-soaked, passionate performances by James Brown and B.B. King, as well as African artists such as Miriam Makeba and Manu Dibango, delight a dancing audience, reflecting a mood of triumphant and hopeful solidarity.
Mel Stuart’s Wattstax (1973), another standout, documents the benefit concert organized by Stax Records as part of the Watts Summer Festival, an annual commemoration of the Watts uprising of 1965. The concert raised over $70,000 that went to support the Sickle Cell Anemia Foundation, the Watts Summer Festival, and the Watts Labor Community Action Committee. Footage of performances by artists like The Staple Singers, Albert King, and Isaac Hayes is woven together with Richard Pryor’s comedy and interviews with Watts residents (including a pre–Love Boat Ted Lange in one of his first on-screen appearances). A group of men share stories about when they first realized they were Black, while others frankly discuss relationships between the sexes.
In one of the film’s most thrilling moments, the crowd begins to descend from the stands onto the football field below as R&B performer Rufus Thomas, known as “The Funkiest Man Alive,” takes the stage. Thomas tells them to stop and wait for his command as he launches into “Do the Funky Chicken.” When he says “Y’all come on in now! Come right on down front,” the crowd pours onto the field in a tidal wave and people break into outrageous dance moves. Their joy is infectious. This is the concert film at its height, an invocation of cinema’s expressive, historical, and narrativizing possibilities all at once.
Chris Shields is a filmmaker and writer who lives in Los Angeles.