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Pure Musical Beauty Found in Films ‘Monterey Pop’ and ‘The Road Forward’

Plenty of sound and fury in these two must-sees.

Dorothy Woodend 10 Jul

Dorothy Woodend writes about film every other week for The Tyee. Find her previous articles here.

There is a line in Chris Marker’s film about his friend and colleague Andrei Tarkovsky, One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich, that draws a connection between film and music. In his quicksilver verbal fashion, Marker recounts Tarkovsky’s struggle to elevate filmmaking to the same level as other art forms:

“It’s now up to cinema, strengthened by all it has learned from painting, and with its faithful ally, the supreme art of music, to prove that it can attain, by its own means, pure beauty.”

If you would like to further explore, experience, imbibe this notion, drink it down like a cool glass of water, there is a documentary musical and musical documentary playing this week in Vancouver that are replete with such pure beauty.

‘The Road Forward’

Music plays a central role in Marie Clements’ documentary The Road Forward, opening at the Vancity Theatre on Friday. The film was also the opening night film for the DOXA Documentary Film Festival.

Originally commissioned and performed at the Aboriginal Pavilion for the 2010 Olympics, The Road Forward was reinvented on film, with an original score from Wayne Lavallee and an extraordinary cast of singers and musicians including Jennifer Kreisberg, Michelle St. John, Cheri Maracle, Ostwelve, Murray Porter, Russell Wallace and Shakti Hayes.

It is a perfect embodiment of that Tarkovskian ideal of cinema and music working in alliance to tell a story that wouldn’t be possible in any other fashion.

In the 1930s, when it was still illegal for Indigenous people to meet and organize, the Native Brotherhood and Sisterhood founded the Native Voice, Canada’s first Indigenous-run newspaper. For more than 70 years the paper functioned as the collective voice of the community, carrying everything from birthday party announcements to the political news of the day. The paper and the people who founded it serve a leaping off point, but the film covers an enormous amount of ground, everything from residential schools to the Highway of Tears. This might make it sound grim, but it is anything but.

From the opening drumming and singing that segues into the guitar-heavy sound of Indian Man, The Road Forward takes its power and joy from the songs that are embedded like lodestones throughout the narrative.

It is one thing to hear stories of activism and identity, but it is entirely another to feel them, carried in music right into the centre of your heart and mind. A perfect example is the Constitutional Express, a cross-Canada protest/train journey organized by activist George Manuel against the then-Trudeau government’s decision to repeal First Nation constitutional rights. The train departed Vancouver on Nov. 24, 1980, and travelled to Ottawa, where the participants pressed their case.

As a piece of Canadian history, this is already fascinating stuff. But when Stō:lo/St’át’imc/Nlaka’pamux hip hop artist Ronnie Dean Harris (Ostwelve) gives new voice to Manuel’s words, “If you really believe we have been here forever, if you really believe, if you really believe — you don’t ask for it. You take it,” the story catches fire.

As a means to access history, culture, and most importantly a sense of belonging and continuity, music functions as a through line, passed down from grandparents, to parents, to children. Many of the artists featured in The Road Forward talk about discovering their own sense of identity through song. As singer Jennifer Kreisberg states, music was one of the very last things that remained, after all other parts of her family’s history and culture had been stripped away. “Thankfully we held onto that,” she says.

Whether it’s the spoken word of George Manuel’s incantatory speech, a call to arms and the power of collective action, or a mother’s lament for her lost child, where words stumble and falter, music takes over, carrying emotion and giving voice to the unendurable and the ecstatic in equal measure.

‘Monterey Pop’

If you need even more pure beauty, a new restoration of Monterey Pop opens at the Cinematheque for a limited run. One of the very first concert films that employed synced sound, Monterey Pop is rightfully famous for featuring extraordinary performances from the likes of Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, The Who, Canned Heat, Eric Burdon and the Animals, Simon and Garfunkel, Jefferson Airplane, Ravi Shankar and Otis Redding.

In his introduction to the film, director D.A. Pennebaker explains how he built five portable sync cameras that were able to capture the action as it unfolded. But what happened next was the stuff of legend: exultant moments like Janis Joplin running headlong into an audience that was primed and ready to be shaken and moved. As the filmmaker says, “It was like an explosion.”

The Monterey International Pop Festival took place in June 1967 in Monterey, California. One of the first rock festivals of its kind (Woodstock wouldn’t happen for another two years), it attained mythic status almost immediately and set the stage for similar events to come. Invited by promoters John Phillips (of the Mama & the Papas) and Lou Adler to document the proceedings, Pennebaker took off for California with cameramen Albert Maysles and Richard Leacock, who would go on to their own documentary fame. The backstory of the event is fascinating stuff. All of the performers played for free, and the proceeds of the concert were donated to charity.

But not everything was peace and love. The rivalry of destruction between Hendrix and The Who prompted all out mayhem. Apocryphal stories abound, such as Jean-Luc Godard being so affected by the performance of Jefferson Airplane that he was determined to make a film with the band (a tiny fragment still exists here).

Monterey was also famous for introducing Janis Joplin and Otis Redding to new audiences. Joplin astounds, not only for the rawness and fragility of her performance, practically coming out of her kitten heels as she stomps and roars her way through a blistering edition of Ball ’n Chain, but also for the fact that no one really knew who she was. You can practically hear the collective chin drop of the people witnessing this moment. Otis Redding was also largely unknown to white American audiences when he performed at Monterey. But after single-handedly bringing the house down, that all changed. The man is, was, and always will be superhuman. If you need any further reminder of his stamina, simply take a gander at this. Only a few months after the concert, he would die in a plane crash.

Between the interstitial sequences of dancing couples, chatting musicians and cops festooned with flowers, there are moments of almost perilous innocence. The gentle hippy girls wafting about, as limp as noodles, were perhaps not quite ready for the ruffled-and-raunch sex missile that was Jimi Hendrix. During Hendrix’s performance of Wild Thing, in which he humps his amp, lights his guitar on fire, smashes the living shit out of it, and then hucks it out into the crowd, the camera cuts to a woman in the audience with a look of what can only be described as abject terror on her face. In that single shot the generational shift hits home in a perfect marriage of sound and image, intermingled in wild embrace.

Part of the film’s immense charm is the feeling that something new is being created right in front of your eyes. You can almost feel the filmmakers figuring things out in the middle of doing them. An especially ravishing example is Ravi Shankar’s closing performance, captured in flying fingers and tapping feet. The camera work is close up and visceral, and so immediate that it resounds in your head, like someone tapped a bell with a hammer.

In other sequences the camera struggles to take it all in. When The Who destroy the stage and the sound guys crowd into the frame, it appears like it might all simply implode, right there, right then. Pennebaker’s film was originally supposed to air on ABC, but Hendrix’s hump-a-thon nixed that idea, and the film was given a theatrical release the following year.

Seeing all of these performers in fullest flight is pure adulterated joy, the kind that activates your central nervous system in an electric light show, a whirling midway, full of sound, colour, and vertiginous swoops of movement, like a rollercoaster meets the merry-go-round. Even now, 50 years later, Monterey Pop packs a hell of a wallop. In the final sequence when the crowd leaps to its feet in rapture and ecstasy, it is hard not to want to do precisely the same thing.  [Tyee]

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