Message to Love: The Isle of Wight Festival

Directed by Murray Lerner

Music Box, through May 22

By J.R. Jones

As historical records, the films chronicling the great rock festivals of the 60s seem fairly suspect. Like all documentaries they reflect the filmmakers’ biases and the mood of the times, but Monterey Pop (1967), Woodstock (1970), and Gimme Shelter (1970)–which portray the rise, peak, and fall of the multiday love-in–were also orchestrated by the same people who staged the shows. In fact the production of a movie for worldwide release was a key part of the financial formula for rock festivals: promoters often considered film rights an ace in the hole, something that would pull a risky undertaking into the black. As a result the documentaries worked as PR for the festivals, perpetuating the myth of tribal bacchanalia that kept the young people coming back summer after summer. Even Gimme Shelter, as Pauline Kael has pointed out, labors to excuse the Rolling Stones for their role in creating the deadly chaos at Altamont.

Murray Lerner’s Message to Love, which records the disastrous third annual Isle of Wight Festival in August 1970, failed to rescue that party’s host, a company called Fiery Creations–it went to pieces before the film could come out. Though Lerner’s footage later appeared in documentaries about the Who and Jimi Hendrix, the bulk of it lay dormant for a quarter century before Lerner found the backing to complete this project. The film’s performances pale in comparison with those of Woodstock and Monterey Pop; of the big guns being used to sell the film, only the Who and Joni Mitchell really deliver the goods. But the hindsight and financial independence afforded by the long delay allow Lerner to present one of the last grubby clashes between the waning idealism of the 60s and the waxing exploitation of the counterculture: the festival is presented not as a communitarian idyll or even a goodwill gesture gone wrong, but as a highly speculative business venture.

The Isle of Wight, located off the southern coast of England, had sustained a gathering of 150,000 music fans in 1969, and according to the London Times, Fiery Creations spent seven months negotiating with the locals for permission to stage a third festival with an expected attendance of 250,000. By this time the downside of such massive crowds was evident: large-scale violence between gate-crashers and police had already marred events in Denver (attendance 50,000) and Northridge, California (150,000). But the film Woodstock had upped the ante, breaking house records at theaters around the country. Fiery Creations was the brainchild of two young local printers, Ray and Ron Foulk (identified in the film only as “Ray the Promoter” and “Ron the Promoter”); clearly they hoped to match the success of Woodstock, using a similar roster (including Hendrix, Mitchell, Joan Baez, Richie Havens, the Who, Ten Years After) and festival site (the 1,100-acre Afton Down).

The five-day festival drew some 350,000 more fans than expected, from Britain, America, Germany, Sweden, France, Algeria, and elsewhere. As the film documents, a mob unwilling to pay the £3 admission fee noisily protested the galvanized steel fence around the site, disrupting the performances to demand a “people’s festival.” The instigators, reported Melody Maker and the Times, were French and Algerian radicals who had pitched tents and other ramshackle shelters in a muddy encampment dubbed Desolation Row. The Times reported that by Friday, the third day, 5,000 people had crashed the festival, and Lerner captures some of the altercations between irate fans and security guards with dogs. “This festival business is becoming a psychedelic concentration camp,” shouts an American fan who’s climbed onstage to address the throng. “What is all this peace and love shit when you have police dogs out there?” By Sunday the free-festival contingent had flattened a section of the fence; of the 600,000 who enjoyed the music, only about 60,000 paid.

Freed from the agenda of his original backers, Lerner gleefully exposes not only their dismay at the gate-crashing but also their hypocrisy. Backstage, ticket takers sift through a huge pile of cash, Ron Foulk fends off angry creditors on the phone, and Ray, having sheepishly confessed to a breach of contract, stares helplessly at his cohorts as a manager on speakerphone declares, “We don’t even have to show up now!” The most ludicrous personality is Rikki Farr, the fair-haired festival backer who emcees the show, delivering numerous homilies to Desolation Row. “We put this festival on–you bastards–with a lot of love!” he screams at one point. “We worked for one year for you pigs! And you wanna break our walls down, and you wanna destroy us? Well, you go to hell!” As he stalks off, “Give Peace a Chance” comes blasting over the sound system. Later on, Lerner catches Farr lying on a couch in the promoters’ office, his hat pulled over his eyes, chanting, “Gimme gimme gimme–gimme gimme gimme–want it want it want it–bread, man, bread.”

Fiery Creations turned out to be a particularly apt name: the Foulk brothers went down in flames six months after the festival. At a meeting in October 1970, the Times reported, Farr implored creditors to give the Foulks more time: “The film of the festival is better than the American festival film Woodstock. It will make more money than Gone With the Wind.” The meeting ended in a scuffle. Lerner had to wait 25 years to obtain funding for postproduction; a press release for Message to Love notes that “most potential backers wanted him to concentrate on concert material and omit the business polemic and protest sideshows.”

Lerner was right to resist: the tug-of-war between Fiery Creations and Desolation Row proves much more interesting than the music. Jim Morrison delivers narcoleptic versions of “When the Music’s Over” and “The End,” the Moody Blues’ “Nights in White Satin” proves even more excruciating without the mushy strings, and Kris Kristofferson is booed off the stage for his limp “Me and Bobby McGee.” Miles Davis is squandered as background music for crowd shots, and Jimi Hendrix turns in a pathetic, blurry performance (commonly misidentified as his last). Some of the best numbers come from second-tier stars, in particular Leonard Cohen (“Suzanne”), Free (“All Right Now”), and Ten Years After (“I Can’t Keep From Crying”).

Unfortunately, the conflicting demands of concert filmmaking still compromise Lerner’s analysis. He subverts the story line by presenting the performances out of sequence, presumably to keep music fans from walking. Hendrix is the first artist on-screen, though he played on the last night of the festival, and shortly thereafter comes the Who’s blistering “Young Man Blues,” from the fourth night. The narrative loses out to the commercial requirements of the genre: just when the action on the ground threatens to spin out of control, we’re jerked back onstage to watch the official show.

And while Lerner’s relative independence allows him to move past the utopianism of Woodstock or Monterey Pop, the fact is, he shot the film in 1970, when portraying the talent in the best possible light was an integral component of the original business transaction. In a film heavy with comical remarks from square locals and addled hippies, few of the artists have anything to say about the fracas unfolding on Afton Down. When Tiny Tim, pursued by a cameraman, is asked if he thinks the festival should be free, his one-word, over-the-shoulder answer is “Sure!” But according to the agent who supervises the counting of the gate receipts, Tiny Tim won’t perform without a cash payment: “He can’t sing with his ukulele without the money! He doesn’t tune up without the money, Murray! Understand? In cash! In pounds!” It’s a particularly revealing sequence, but a drop in the bucket compared to the wealth of adulatory performance scenes. Whether he was too impressed to go after the big names or was simply stonewalled by performers angry with the promoters, Lerner never holds the stars’ feet to the fire for long.

Obviously the artists knew that they were the reason 600,000 people had traveled to the island, and festivals were notorious for stiffing the performers first when the numbers didn’t add up. But as Robert Santelli points out in Aquarius Rising: The Rock Festival Years, the big stars on the festival circuit commanded huge sums, which in turn made the festivals even riskier for the other creditors and for the artists at the bottom of the food chain. The Times reported that Hendrix, Davis, Baez, and Donovan alone were costing Fiery Creations nearly £250,000 (against the £180,000 they supposedly collected from paying festivalgoers). Joan Baez is the only performer who addresses the issue of a free festival, sitting for reporters before her set. “I’m not going to be forced into giving a free concert because they insist on me giving a free concert,” she huffs. According to the Times, Baez was being paid £12,500; if her best number was the pious cover of “Let It Be” that appears in the film, she made out like a bandit.

The film’s dramatic high point occurs about halfway through, after Joni Mitchell’s transcendent performance of “Woodstock”; her ability to transfix half a million people with a simple piano and vocal performance makes a strong argument for the artists’ right to a handsome payment for their gifts. Just after the song ends, a wild-eyed hippie appears from the wings and grabs Mitchell’s microphone, demanding to make a statement. He’s quickly hauled off, still shouting. Mitchell plays on for a few moments, fighting back tears, then stops, asks for the crowd’s attention, and begins telling a story about a Hopi ceremony she witnessed: “There were tourists who were getting into it like Indians, and there were Indians who were getting into it like tourists. I think that you’re acting like tourists, man! Give us some respect!”

Mitchell’s little speech is the most complex emotional moment in the film, exposing at once her youthful exuberance, her fragile idealism, and her naivete–traits that have all been attributed to the Woodstock nation. Of course, the Foulk brothers would have preferred that people act like tourists, the better to collect £3 a head. The financial success of the Isle of Wight Festival, like that of all the others, was predicated on the deification of the performers–as Baez said in her press conference, if the multitudes wanted free music, they could put on their own show. Lerner may present a colder, more cynical view of the enterprise than his predecessors, but the Doors, the Who, and Hendrix are his marquee gold. After all, he’s got his own tickets to sell.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Uncredited photo of Joni Mitchell.