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.)

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

READ MORE
More Films
Zappa
Two hours with the original Mother of Invention isn't enough

Raoul Hernandez, Nov. 27, 2020

The Twentieth Century
Suitably bonkers Canadian surrealist comedy rewrites history

Marc Savlov, Nov. 27, 2020

More by Marjorie Baumgarten
Stardust
Bowie before he became Ziggy in this less-than-glittering docudrama

Nov. 27, 2020

Sound Unseen Review: <i>Stardust</i>
Sound Unseen Review: Stardust
The birth of Bowie the icon retold with more glimmer than glitter

Nov. 16, 2020

KEYWORDS FOR THIS FILM

Message to Love: The Isle of Wight Festival, Murray Lerner

MORE IN THE ARCHIVES
NEWSLETTERS
One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

New recipes and food news delivered Mondays

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle