Message to Love: The Isle of Wight Festival
1997, NR, 128 min. Directed by Murray Lerner.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., June 20, 1997
We want the world and we want it now. When did the Woodstock generation start believing its own hype and, what's more, when did it quit? Message to Love: The Isle of Wight Festival documents a bit of that phenomenon, the point at which idealism was overtaken by cynicism. The Isle of Wight Festival was one of the infamous last gasps of the Sixties: a music festival that took place over a five-day period at the end of August, 1970 on an island off the southern coast of England which could only be reached by boat. We've got to get ourselves back to the garden. Over 600,000 people attended. About one-tenth of those people paid admission. Throughout it all, filmmaker Murray Lerner was there recording the events, although it took him another 25 years to find the funds to edit and complete the movie. (One project, From Mao to Mozart, completed by Lerner during the interim, earned the director a best-documentary Oscar.) Part concert movie and part social essay, Message to Love is a unique entry in the field of rock festival documentaries. The movie's dual agenda may be both its strength and its downfall. It's simply too much material for a two-hour time frame. Among the festival performers are Jimi Hendrix (a couple weeks before his death), the Doors (one year before the death of Jim Morrison), the Who, Joni Mitchell, Miles Davis, Jethro Tull, Free, the Moody Blues, Tiny Tim, John Sebastian, Donovan, Ten Years After, Kris Kristofferson, Joan Baez, Leonard Cohen, and Emerson, Lake & Palmer. Everyone's entitled to their personal opinions here. Me, I'd trade a whole lot of that “Nights in White Satin” hoo-hah from the Moody Blues for a few more snatches of Miles Davis and Leonard Cohen. But the remarkable aspect of this documentary is the footage wrapped around the concert performances. It's a haunting portrait of bankruptcy in both the spiritual and financial senses. The promoters spent a year planning the event and building a fence around the site, a barrier that was quickly demolished by the gate-crashers, who erected their own hillside community of outsiders dubbed “Desolation Row.” What have they done to our fair sister? Ravaged and plundered and tied her with fences. Festival-goers spouted fuzzy-minded logic about how the pigs can't stop the music. All we are saying is give peace a chance. Promoters, seeing their artist payouts and profits disappearing in a thick cloud of hippie hogwash, bemoaned their fate. Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose. The artists all dealt with the art vs. commerce dilemma as best as they could. The different tacks they choose may contain some of the film's most revealing moments of all. More than a document of a music festival, Message to Love captures a pivotal moment in time, the seeds of the post-Woodstock, post-Altamont Seventies depression. Ah, but you may as well try and catch the wind. All that's left at the end of Message to Love is the metaphorical image: Cinderella sweeping up on Desolation Row. (See related interview in this week's “Screens” section.)