The other day, I came across Jonathan Rosenbaum's review of Todd Haynes' I'm Not There
, which he began by writing, "I’ve owned copies of Dont Look Back
and Nashville Skyline
for decades, but I’d never describe myself as a hard-core Bob Dylan fan." His subsequent criticism of Dylan's music - as well as the fact that Nashville Skyline
has been often regarded as a lightweight albeit popular-selling album barely distinguishable from the standard country music coming out of Nashville at the time
- really puts a spotlight on how films revolving around rock music are evaluated by critics.Woodstock
and Monterey Pop
immediately comes to mind as prime examples. Rosenbaum makes a compelling case on why Woodstock is a great film,
but to me, the music really undermines his argument - it really suffers in comparison to Monterey Pop
, which not only is better from a musical standpoint but, to me, a better film all around.
Just to pick one scene from the film, read Rosenbaum's analysis of Richie Havens' appearance - the way that scene is cut and composed is great, but then you have Jim Derogatis' take:"...it’s a bunch of dirty, smelly hippies rolling in the mud, listening to ****ing Richie Havens strumming an acoustic guitar. A lot of the best stuff that happened at Woodstock ain’t in the movie. I’d love to see The Incredible String Band; I love freaky, acid-fried pagans doing their thing. But they’re not in the movie. Instead we get Richie Havens."Anyway, I always thought Robert Christgau did the best job of comparing both the two festivals and films when he reviewed another film by Murray Lerner in early 1997.
"A quarter century too late to make him rich or famous, Murray Lerner's Message to Love: The Isle of Wight Festival 1970
, at the Film Forum, joins three earlier documentaries of the '60s in viewing that vast, vague decade and concept through the metaphor of the rock festival: D.A. Pennebaker's Monterey Pop
, Michael Wadleigh's Woodstock
, and the Maysles Brothers and Charlotte Zwerin's Gimme Shelter
. As with Woodstock
--but not Monterey Pop
, which as the most utopian of these films had damn well better make good on the pleasures it promises, or Gimme Shelter
, powered by a band that has always made antiutopian pleasure its specialty--the music that's supposed to sell the flick isn't so hot. Instead, like all the others, Message to Love
is carried by an argument that's both persuasive and partial, a nod to entertainment value that's truer to the moment it hit the theatres than the occasion it represents.
"In Monterey Pop
, the music and its 50,000 or 90,000 celebrants are like a wonderful secret--wonderful because even though everyone knows about it, it still delivers the thrill of discovery. Unveiled in 1968, Pennebaker's vision of the 1967 event was instrumental in convincing potential organizers and participants that music was the healthiest way to crystallize the energy of a counterculture that by then seemed both blessedly inevitable and dangerously embattled. Poof, Woodstock
--only before Wadleigh's edit was off the table there was also the anti-Woodstock, Altamont. One reason Woodstock
is wryer than Monterey Pop
is that the counterculture constituency was no longer gullible enough to buy its own peace-and-love bullshit uncut--by 1970, the myth of the '60s had taken on a layer of the protective irony that had long proven useful shtick for Zen gurus and Yippie troublemakers alike. Now as then, the film is a better advertisement for the fans than for the music that brought them together, most engaging when it focuses on its chosen cross-section of Woodstock Nation's 300,000 or 500,000 fools--sometimes wise or sainted, always self-righteous/self-deluded/self-whatever. But it was too hip and funny to be accused of spreading the false rumor that any such gathering could last longer than a found weekend."