Aug 24 2021
By Jym Fahey.
In 495, Cedric, a Saxon chief, and his son, Henric, conquered the Isle Of Wight. After the inhabitants were slain and repopulated with settlers more to Cedric ‘s liking, life on the island was then considered stable for one and a half centuries.
Some 1300 years later the world around the Isle Of Wight was anything but stable. That turmoil eventually even infiltrated what had become a quiet vacation spot for the British middle class. In August 1970, Cedric and his Saxons might have felt right at home among the audience of that year ‘s Isle Of Wight Festival. In fact, that might have been a good name for one of the acts. Academy Award winning film director Murray Lerner was there with his crew to turn his experienced eye on the festival. The resulting film footage became legendary even before their actual release. In 2002, one of Murray’s last projects to result from that festival is called Blue Wild Angel: Jimi Hendrix Live At The Isle Of Wight and as always, Lerner was on hand to contribute his talent, willing to go to any lengths to further the cause of cinematic art and, in this case, rock history.
Murray Lerner had cut his festival teeth on a film called Festival, which explored the Newport Folk Festivals from 1963 through 1966 and the culture involved in them. When the Isle Of Wight Festival came around at the end of that decade, he was ready to do it all again.
In 2000, during production of the Blue Wild Angel film and accompanying soundtrack, Murray Lerner sat down with Experience Hendrix to discuss his experiences at the festival and how the film was coming together.
Experience Hendrix: By the time the Isle Of Wight project came around, you had considerable experience not just with festivals, but with the whole concept of the documentary. How did that project click with what you had already done?
Murray Lerner: One big thing was that at Newport, there was a lot of stuff going on behind the scenes. That combined with the fact that I ‘d been to film festivals quite a bit since Newport because [Festival] was shown at festivals. It isn’t just sweetness and light. Everybody is jockeying for position. Everybody wants a commercial thing out of it. So I wanted to turn the cameras the other way and show a big event as to the forces that are shaping it, while the event is going on. I was looking for that. Then I saw Woodstock.
I thought that that doesn’t do it. That’s the opposite. That’s totally not what I want to do. I was determined to do something else after the Woodstock film.
Since I had done that thing about the germination of the counterculture, I started to read a lot about it. I thought that was starting to break up. Something was happening here where it’s being commercialized into T-shirts and posters. There was going to be a tremendous conflict here between the people that really believe in it and the people that are using it. Then someone I knew, who had been the co-manager of Dylan, and liked my Festival film, Bert Block, said, “You know I love your film. How about showing it at the Isle Of Wight festival. ” I said, “Good idea, but what about making another film?”
That’s how it got started. And little by little, I got to do this film.
Everybody was trying to do it but I think that the promoters saw that I was an easy going guy, so that they could deal with me (laughs). They liked the idea. To give them credit, they were really into it. They loved the Newport film. They shared my dislike, I should say negative feelings, about the Woodstock film, oddly enough. There was an aesthetic side to their thinking. And they gave me carte blanche. I was able to pre-light the offices and everything. So I really got in deep behind the scenes. Much more than is even in the film. But I couldn’t get money for finishing it for a really long time.
EH: What was it about the Woodstock film that you didn’t like?
ML: Well, it’s been a long time, but I felt that it was just presenting a very bland image of the forces that were going on within the audience and the promoters. To be honest, a lot of the same things went on at Woodstock that went on at the Isle Of Wight, only they didn’t show it. I thought, “This is not real. ” I thought it was really a promotional film. By the way, it made money. It made more money than my film, but I just thought it was a glorified puff piece.
EH: By the time of the Isle Of Wight festival, pop music had grown up considerably. It was a major industry by that time. Naturally, there were more people interested about making a film about the Isle Of Wight. What were some of the other ways that that exponential growth of that industry affected your film?
ML: I guess the basic thing would be that the competition between commercialism and idealism was reflected in the music. People were making big sums of money off of films that attacked money essentially, to put it crudely. It was a strange phenomenon. And I wanted to show money, which I did. In that sense it affected me and also it gave me a bigger canvas.
EH: What were the major challenges facing you at the Isle Of Wight?
ML: I was there about two weeks before and two weeks after the festival. The challenges were to get access to every possible kind of a group or representative of a group that was there. Not just the promoters, but the kids and the radicals and everybody. I prided myself on people accepting me, which I think they did, through my interacting with them.
Then of course there was the logistical challenge of being able to put together a crew in about two weeks to do this, which I did. Maybe less, but two weeks at most, and to organize them in this way of thinking about what I had in mind. I hoped to inspire them and give them an insight into the event as to what I wanted to do. And to really throw themselves into it, because you had to really … not get tired. I was almost everywhere. I was a fiend. A fanatic about it. Some of them were not used to a director sort of directing cinema verity. But at least I had to give them the clues as to what I was looking for, so then I did. The people that are the best usually don’t mind filming with my conversation. I ‘d get behind them and even move the camera one way or the other. I like to play games with where the eye is looking. I like to make it seem as if the person is thinking to himself. Anyway, I guess the challenge was to keep up with the event. And there was a certain amount of fear involved with things getting out of control and violence swamping us. I mean I was worried about that. When you see the fire on the stage, I thought that was it. I didn’t know what we could do about it anyway. That was my sense that this could be the end of it.
EH: When you say you were everywhere, how much of that was the planned-out sort and how much of it was more being in the right place at the right time?
ML: I think it was a combination of both, but there was a lot that was planned out, but planned out conceptually. For instance, I knew that I was looking to show money, really show money. I knew that I was looking to show points of tension, pressures on the promoters. I knew I was looking to find out what was happening in the crowd, in the disaffected portion of the crowd up on the hill and in “Desolation Row.” And I had various themes about what brought them together, what they thought about money, what they thought about the success of artists, and what they thought the message of the music was in relation to their cynical views of the music industry demanding so much money. So, I had a series of themes. And when I came there early, we went over the logistics of the festival and picked points that we wanted to get to periodically. Of course, then there was happenstance. The fire on the stage for instance was totally unpredictable. There was a lot of stage activity, which was unpredictable, like somebody interrupting Joni Mitchell and talk. So, it was both.
But there was more than you might think of planning. I like that. I like to plan. I like to be involved. I don’t want to be a fly on the wall in that sense. I think it gets me further and deeper into people than just hanging back and being totally unobtrusive.
EH: So you could see those places where the crowd tensions would be boiling, as the crowd was coming in and as the event was developing. You could say, “You know that’s a spot we should keep an eye on. “
ML: Right. Absolutely. Places like “Desolation Row,” which was named of course after they got there, based on Dylan’s song, where kids were building their own houses out of scrap. And then the hill above the festival grounds, which became the focus of a lot of the tension, was public land even though it was a great spot to listen. The promoters had conflicting views about fencing it off. They started to fence it off and then realized that they couldn’t. That hill was there and there was nothing they could do about it. We knew that would be a point of focus. And the promoters’ office we knew would be a point of focus … the various administrative places where they hired workers, where they had their internal meetings, next to the main offices where they doled out cash. We knew about that.
EH: At one point you went up on that hill at night to film didn’t you?
ML: That was one of the scariest moments. We went up there one night where a lot of the radical groups stayed. They came down every night and started banging on the corrugated iron fence. It was quite dramatic. The sound was a weird, staccato, metallic drumming sound. We went up there with just a small crew and sun guns, which are small portable lights. The fences had not been constructed, but the materials were there for it. And we started to try to talk to these groups. Of course there was a kind of suspicion of us, a very strong one. They started to get really nasty. They had those pieces of heavy metal that are used to join pieces of the fence. Those were lying around and they started to pick them up and threaten us with them. I thought that was the end. It was dark and we were far from the main thing and no one could see us. I thought they were really going to bloody us with those things. But somebody said, “Don’t worry, they’re okay.” Then somehow they got like to us and the tide turned, but I was really scared at that point. There was nothing we could do.
EH: As far as the administrative offices go, your experience with Newport and various film festivals had given you information, so you went in there knowing that things would happen. Did that happen to a greater extent than you anticipated?
ML: I was sensitized by those other festivals to anticipate things happening but things happened to a much greater extent than I anticipated. Every day there was tension about money, about pressure from the artists, pressure from the kids wanting to get in for nothing and the various logistical discussions. I think it was definitely a surprise to the promoters that each day the number of people that were arriving mounted. They said, “You know we’ve been hyping the size of the crowds that are arriving and all of a sudden they are arriving. “I think the most they anticipated, even after the surprise was about 200 thousand, 250 thousand, and it grew to 600,000.
So it was interesting each day to see them deciding each day what to do. What to do about “Desolation Row” and the other pressure points. We have one scene in Message To Love: The Isle Of Wight Festival Of Music where the promoters wondered what should they do about the extreme radicals who wanted to get rid of the fence. They decided in a sense to try and buy them out. The radicals were given free tickets and paid to paint the fences. You saw the results. The graffiti on the fences ended up nastier than leaving the fences alone.
EH: Were you astonished by the size of the event?
ML: Absolutely. I couldn’t quite believe it. That’s why the crowd became an entity in itself. We felt a living presence that we had to deal with all the time. In a conversation with me, Joni Mitchell once called it “The Beast. ” There was a feeling that if it turned on you that would be it. The size of the crowd became monumental in my memory. That’s something I’ll never forget.
EH: Do you have a sense at all that you could almost have been anywhere at any time and gotten something you could use because of the amount of stuff that was going on?
ML: That’s an interesting point. I’m not sure. We tried wandering through the crowd. I’d say that the crowd in the arena would be more difficult to get exciting material from. We were looking for specifics. For example, when it came to the townspeople, we read the newspapers and found out what opinions there were. Then we found those people and filmed them in the town. We found certain groups that were volunteers to work on the festival, like doctors and went to see them. I’m not sure that if we had just wandered around that it would have been so interesting. We also talked to the newspaper editors. Some were quite friendly toward me and some were antagonistic, thinking that I had some kind of ulterior agenda and was gonna make a fortune on this film. Ha, ha. I wish it did.
EH: What were some of the backstage events that you filmed that kind of surprised you in terms of you access. Obviously they knew that you were there, but there is a tendency to forget that you are there.
ML: There was a lot about the health inspectors and the pressures they put on. They almost shut down the festival a number of times. There were townspeople that wanted to shut it down and the promoters had to desperately figure out who to call to counter the negative elements in the town.
EH: It’s been 30 years since you shot the film. You’ve done a number of projects with the footage. Do you still see new things when you’re looking at it?
ML: Yes, I have a lot of interest myself in doing a broader panorama of the culture of the kids and of the various participants. More of a documentary with less music. That’s one element, which I think would be very rich. I have at least a hundred hours of that material, which if you let it develop would be extraordinary. In short sound bites it’s difficult to capture how middle class these kids were and the contradiction about getting in for nothing. And what their parents were like and where they came from. I have all of that.
Then of course I must have at least ten groups that I could do a good hour program on. Like Miles Davis, The Doors or Jethro Tull, The Moody Blues, Joni Mitchell. I have fabulous material with Rory Gallagher. And Leonard Cohen I have good material with. Joan Baez and so forth. I keep putting out feelers to get that done. Of course I’ve already done one called Listening To You on The Who.
EH: Now 30 years later, do you have a new appreciation for what you got on film there?
ML: Every time I look at it, I have a new appreciation of it because it’s so rich and it seems to say so much about that period. In relation to specific performers, each performer is different. With Hendrix, there is a drama going on about the state he was in and what was going on at the festival. To me that’s fascinating and we try to show that by-play [in Blue Wild Angel].
EH: What about your appreciation of the festival as an entity? Has that increased or decreased over time?
ML: I think it just verified my original feeling that it was a turning point in the 60’s movement. The music was fabulous. There have been different opinions over the years about these performances. As time goes on there is a classic resonance to these performances and people appreciated them more and more. When we issued The Who at the Isle Of Wight there were different opinions. Some obsessive fans questioned whether if it was that good. Others consider it the best film performance The Who had ever done, and one of the best performances. They consider it one of their best. It must have taken about 3 or 4 years to persuade them to do it. It got great praise from both Townshend and Daltrey.
The music becomes better to me as time goes on. I don’t know what that is, whether it’s just me being more conservative about current music or not.
EH: One of the performers who has the same mystical quality, perhaps in part because he also died young, is Jim Morrison. You had met them earlier hadn’t you?
ML: I met Jim Morrison and the other Doors at the Atlanta Film Festival. Even though we both won awards, we were both cynical about the awards because we felt that we were getting them to cater to us rather than as a meaningful award. I forget what I got, an award for best music in a film. I didn’t know what that meant. I got up and sort of spoke my piece at a gathering about it to the promoter and they liked that. Then they asked me for some advice about their film.
Then at the Isle Of Wight, before they went on, Morrison said, “You can film but you’re not going to get a picture. ” I said, “Why not?” He said, “Because we work in very low-level lighting. ” I said, “Well, let me worry about that. ” As you can see in the film [Message To Love] I got them.
EH: What surprised you about the performances?
ML: I didn’t go to that many concerts in those days. I was surprised at the intensity of The Who and of Jimi. I had never been to a concert of Jimi Hendrix. I was filming a few feet from Jimi. It was an incredible sound. I couldn’t believe it. It was overwhelming. It sucked you right in. Maybe a lot of people were used to it but I wasn’t. It was really something to hear. I was thrilled to be there. He was a fantastic guitarist and he spoke with his guitar, with his music. It was almost like words. He didn’t need words as much as a lot of other performers do.
EH: In those days, you couldn’t really listen to FM rock radio without hearing at least some of Jimi’s music. Were you familiar with his music beyond that?
ML: Not that much. I wasn’t really a dedicated fan. I didn’t buy his records. I didn’t do that with much of that kind of music. I became a great fan of electric music at Newport, when I saw the transition there from acoustic to electric. I felt there was something important going on that created the need for electric music. We have an interview with Hendrix where he talks about electricity reaching into the soul of a person. That’s what he was trying to do, to really wake up the people who were asleep. I felt quite moved by electric music. It may seem strange to you, but it was a new phenomenon. Of course Jimi Hendrix was the ultimate on the electric guitar.
EH: In the footage that I have seen, Jimi seemed preoccupied, which makes sense, [since it was] backstage before he went on. Was that your impression?
ML: There? Of course, but I thought he was preoccupied with his music. I guess he also had technical problems, which he overcame, in my opinion. He got there at the last minute and maybe he was worried about the organization of things. He seemed internal. He was playing to himself in a way. It was less theatrical than he used to play. Fewer antics. The music speaks for itself.
EH: Can you separate your reaction to Jimi then from how you feel now, or does it all meld together?
ML: I think it all melds together. Don’t forget, then I was involved in filming and I get excited and throw myself into it. And the sound was overwhelming and things were moving around me a lot. And then as I was editing it, I grew more and more involved in the beauty of the music.
EH: You have said that Jimi calmed the crowd at the Isle Of Wight. How was that reflected in their behavior?
ML: When he was on they were quiet, to put it quite simply, and just sitting. There wasn’t a lot of screaming when he was on. They were just listening. There wasn’t a lot of dancing in the aisle. There was more of that with The Who, a lot more.
EH: It seems that from what I’ve seen, heard and read that the promoters were particularly interested in making sure that Jimi performed and was happy. Was that your take on it as well?
ML: Yes, it was … at every step. They were anxious to get him there. I don’t know when he arrived but it was fairly last minute. Beforehand they were worried that everything would be available to him. As you can see in the footage, they were worried about the stage being ready. For anybody, but they were mainly worried about him as the headliner.
EH: In your opinion, how ready were they for the festival to begin?
ML: Mezzo-mezzo. They were lucky in that there were three days of what they called lesser groups. There were either two or three days that they didn’t charge for. So they got a lot of practice in putting it on beforehand. So that aspect of it seemed to work out.
Comparing it to Woodstock ’99 for example, I think the grounds overall were probably cleaner at Woodstock. They didn’t have the heat of course, so it wasn’t offensive to the crowd to be on the grounds. I don’t think they were prepared for some of the pressures, like the crowd refusing to leave. They were worried that people with one-day tickets would stay the whole time. They couldn’t empty the thing. The fences, after a while, got holes in them from the smashing and people could enter free. Then they did a brilliant thing. They declared it free in time to stop any rioting. It was a good idea.
There was constant breaking down of sound and all of that, but I think they were pretty well prepared. They were prepared, yes. And they put it on. You could hear the performers. Some people bellyached but when you have that size crowd, you can’t help that. You could hear the performers. The performers went on. [The promoters] were jockeying a lot of stuff. Let’s put it this way, they got it on. I’ve got to give them credit for that. With everything I showed in the film, I’ve gotta give them credit for putting it on. No one was seriously hurt, which was incredible. At almost every other festival, someone was hurt. In the latest two Woodstocks, there were major injuries. I’m sure there was a presence of drugs, but not really dramatic. I think that every performer that wanted to go on did go on.
EH: Now how many hours of footage did you end up with?
ML: I think it’s 375 hours.
EH: And out of that you’ve completed …
ML: The feature, The Who project and the Jimi Hendrix project
EH: And the feature was Message To Love.
ML: Message To Love. Which is a Hendrix song. It had a meaning, I don’t know if it escapes people. Message To Love. First of all, I like the “to ” because people say, “There’s some kind of twist here. It’s a message to love from the festival, questioning what are the various meanings of love. Everybody said, “We’re here to express our love for one another. ” Then there’s personal love. And then there’s the promoter saying, “We put on this festival with a lot of love, you bastards. ” I wanted people to think a second when they see the title. I like titles that do that.
EH: Did you have any concern with this new documentary, Blue Wild Angel, about keeping it fresh in the eyes of the audience?
ML: Yes, we had that concern, but we had a revelation. We had put out some of this material earlier in a very truncated form. By putting it together in its full length, it was much more powerful. So it had a fresh perspective from that point of view. Except for technical blips and a few minor differences, we let the thing run, of course editing as well as we could. “Machine Gun,” which is 20 minutes or more, is extraordinarily powerful in its full length. It’s amazing.
Then of course when we made Message To Love, my basic premise was no retrospective discussion whatsoever. I wanted to thrust you right into it, which I think I did. In this one we had some retrospective discussion. It’s very interesting with the passage of time when Mitch Mitchell, Billy Cox, and myself talk about the festival and crosscut it with festival footage. That was quite a revelation to me because it’s quite dramatic and meaningful in a different way. It’s quite strong. Mitch Mitchell used to vacation on the Isle Of Wight, so we see shots of kids vacationing. He talks about that in contrast with the madness that was going on later. So I think there is a new twist to it, which is fresh.
EH: You mentioned earlier your Avid editing tools and of course they are just fabulous. Obviously, the technology has changed the way you approach filmmaking in general. Can you talk about that a little?
ML: There’s still the basic concept of editing but the new technology has freed you up in a way that was unimaginable. To do what I’m doing and to look at various possibilities of how music enters and how various shots of the festival interrelate, and switch it around took an army of assistants. The inertia was very important and you might hesitate to make changes. You might say, “We can’t do this. It’ll take three people two days just to look at a change. ” And then to undo it if it’s no good … So this is a great relief to see almost instantly what changes can be made and see what new ideas come about.
For example when I had a thought about f lying in the title, Blue Wild Angel, we could see that it’s not quite working, but if we do it like this it will work, and suddenly it’s working. It’s fantastic. I don’t know what we were doing before. It’s given us a whole new creative potential.
EH: If you had known then that 30 years later you would be working with this footage, is there anything that you would have done differently?
ML: I don’t know what it would be. I don’t know. We made mistakes in filming and I would have liked to not have made those mistakes, but I don’t know what I would have done not to. Sometimes film runs out while you’re filming. Sometimes the batteries are low. Speeds change. But I think we worried about that then anyway. I don’t think we could have afforded more cameras than we had. I might have done more interviews with the performers … I tried hard. But that would have meant taking people away from what they were doing. If we had more crews, in that sense maybe, I would have liked to have been at the airport when Jimi came in and when he left. We tried to do that, but his schedule was pretty hectic and we couldn’t mesh. It would have been nice to have more resources to do all that. Interviews and discussions with the performers was the major thing I would have liked to have added. It was really difficult to do. Except for some of the performers who came early.
EH: Was there anything that happened that you didn’t get to film that you wished you had?
ML: In my Newport film there’s a very famous scene that everyone seemed to be thrilled with, which is the kids entering the arena and rushing up the hill. It goes on for a long time as the credits run. It’s a very moving scene. Everyone tried to get that scene [at the Isle Of Wight]. I showed the crew the Festival film. They tried to get that scene. We all tried to get the opening of the festival and never got anything anywhere near that. One or two crews were unable to get there on time. We didn’t get a real opening.
EH: Can you tell us more about Blue Wild Angel? I understand there is going to be a short documentary section, which leads up to the concert footage?
ML: We used recent interviews with Billy Cox, Mitch Mitchell, and myself, and Gerry Stickells, the road manager, to set up several things. One was the festival, the anticipation of the festival. The other was Jimi’s mood at the time both personally and career-wise. Here he was, he finally had his own studio that he could use as a tool. His career was blossoming. He was getting into a whole new type of music. And then he had to leave for this festival, which he was very reluctant to do. Of course he died tragically and never came back to America. The music lives on.
EH: I think the film does a good job of setting all that up. Now can you tell us about the title?
ML: At the beginning of film, there’s a backstage piece shortly before he goes on stage. He’s asked how to introduce the group and he says, “Billy Cox on bass, Mitch Mitchell on drums and the blue wild angel. Wild blue angel music. ” Then we cut to a long shot of the festival with a soundtrack of Jimi playing underneath as the title, Blue Wild Angel, flies in over the festival.
EH: This is probably a little hard for you to determine, but do you think that what you’ve done with Blue Wild Angel that Jimi would be pleased?
ML: I would hope so. It’s interesting that you mention it. I would think that he would be very pleased. I don’t know what his feeling about film was or about visual aspects of his work. I think we did a lot of justice to the music. The editing of the music is fabulous. We had a very unusual editor named Einar Westerlund. He’s fabulous at getting the little nuances. Just the right point to change to another shot. I think the f low of it moves quite beautifully and I think, I hope, Jimi would have been pleased.
BLUE WILD ANGEL: JIMI HENDRIX LIVE AT THE ISLE OF WIGHT
Blue Wild Angel: Jimi Hendrix Live At The Isle Of Wight documents the guitarist’s legendary performance before 600,000 people at this massive outdoor music and arts festival in August 1970. This unforgettable concert film experience draws heavily upon Academy Award winning Director Murray Lerner’s vast archive of previously unseen performance footage and presents some of the Hendrix’s finest ever concert performances, including extended takes of “Machine Gun,” “Red House,” and other favorites such as “All Along The Watchtower,” “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” and a unique medley of “God Save The Queen” and “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” Available on DVD and Blu-ray from Authentic Hendrix and now streaming exclusively via The Coda Collection.
Blue Wild Angel: Jimi Hendrix Live At The Isle Of Wight made its commercial debut in November 2002 as both a feature-length film and accompanying soundtrack. Murray Lerner subsequently completed additional film including Miles Electric: A Different Kind Of Blue (2004), The Birth Of The Band (2006), The Other Side Of The Mirror: Bob Dylan Newport 1963-1965 (2007), The Moody Blues: Threshold Of A Dream (2009), Leonard Cohen: Live At The Isle Of Wight, Taste: What’s Going On (2015) and a posthumously completed work Joni Mitchell: Both Sides Now – Live At The Isle Of Wight (2018) among others. Sadly, Murray Lerner passed away on September 2, 2017 at the age of 90.
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