The 1970 Isle of Wight Music Festival was bigger than Woodstock — but because only 10% of its estimated 600,000 patrons actually paid their $:3 gate fee, this largest event of its kind was also the last, a financial and ill-will disaster. Balancing plentiful performance footage against behind-the-scenes drama, “Message to Love” is a slightly long but engrossing time trip backward by doc vet Murray Lerner (“From Mao to Mozart”). While inclusion of the last filmed perfs by Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison assures want-see in some quarters, pic presents mainstream marketing challenges as a curio both “new” and 25 years old.
It took Lerner that long to secure post-shoot funding; most potential backers wanted him to concentrate on concert material and omit the thornier business and protest sideshows. Yet latter prove fascinating, lending doc a far deeper historical insight than similar pics from its original era allowed.
The festival was a logistical risk from the start, taking place on an isle (off England’s south coast) accessible only by boat. When overwhelming crowds turned up, a radical fringe set up their own “Desolation Row” outside official bounds, demanding free access. The mood soon turned ugly — protesters battered makeshift fences and confronted guards and police dogs — before organizers simply accepted their huge fiscal loss.
One malcontent says, “This festival business is becoming a psychedelic concentration camp”; another interrupts Joni Mitchell’s set before being dragged offstage. Performer Tiny Tim, asked if musical fests should be free, shrugs, “Oh , sure,” yet won’t play without cash up front. The conflict between ’60s anti-capitalist currents and music-biz realities is Lerner’s central theme here.
Of course, there are myriad perfs to soften that harsh “vibe,” running the gamut of then-current rock genres. Mitchell, Joan Baez, Leonard Cohen and Donovan head up the folkie contingent. Free’s “All Right Now” signals emergent hard-rock trends; Emerson Lake & Palmer (in a rather ridiculous first public appearance) signal the shorter-lived pomp-rock vogue. Ten Years After, Jethro Tull and jazz star Miles Davis (with a riveting “Call It Anything”) also appear. Slurry but droll, Kris Kristofferson walks offstage when fence-pounding protesters overwhelm his set.
Though expertly edited, pic begins to drag a bit around the time its few twice-seen acts turn up again. The Who offer typically showy versions of “Young Man Blues” and
“Naked Eye.” Hendrix, who died just 12 days later, performs both “Foxy Lady” and “Machine Gun/Voodoo Child.” Morrison — bearded, a little paunchy and out of it, but nowhere near the slob depicted in Oliver Stone’s “Doors” finale — had less than a year before his own demise. The version of “The End” here notably omits his infamous “Mother I want to …” spoken segment.
Straightforwardly shot, with little of the cinematic custom-styling “Woodstock” attempted, these performances are seldom definitive, but they’re absorbing nonetheless, and decision to highlight familiar hits should boost pic’s nostalgic appeal.
Lerner opted not to add hindsight interviews with surviving participants. (There are also few offstage glimpses of the musicians.) This lends overall effort unusual purity as a reflection of the era’s ideological conflicts and the distance between iconic talent, biz-siders and fans. Helmer keeps coming back to several representative observers: Increasingly exasperated announcer/event packager Rikki Farr, a flamboyant middle-aged booster known as “The Baroness,” anarchistic “Desolation” dwellers, individual agents and promoters, and so on. Repping the local old guard, a resident ID’d as “The Commander” sniffs (pipe in mouth), “It’s not just the hippies — behind them is Black Power, and behind them is Communism.”
Resulting sprawl adds up to a complex, flavorful overview that’s like a nonfictive counterculture “Nashville.” It’s not a complete downer a la “Gimme Shelter,” but certainly does suggest ways in which peace ‘n’ love politics were already doomed in their confrontation with commerce.
Given an apparently tricky long-after-the-fact process of editing materials (some 200-plus hours), images are in good shape, and sound quality is excellent. Pic (which is headed to Berlin Festival) played a late ’95 L.A. gig to qualify for feature docu Oscar consideration.