Murray Lerner, a seminal music documentary filmmaker of the ′60s and ′70s, has died at age 90 in New York City.
Lerner won an Oscar for best documentary in 1981 for “From Mao to Mozart: Isaac Stern in China.”
Though less famous than his contemporaries D.A. Pennebaker and the fraternal duo Albert and David Maysles, Lerner’s significant contribution to documentary filmmaking included recording historic footage of Bob Dylan going electric at the 1965 Newport Jazz Festival and Jimi Hendrix and The Doors giving their last major performances in 1970 at the Isle of Wight Festival.
Lerner died Saturday in his home in Long Island City, N.Y., following an illness of about three months, according to his son Noah Lerner, a writer and producer at HBO. “He was a complete filmmaker,” Lerner tells Variety. “A cinematographer first and foremost, but someone who also wrote, edited, produced, and directed.”
Film producer and friend Martin Lewis remembers Lerner as “one of the most significant music documentary makers of our time.”
His second film, “Festival,” released in 1967, put him on the map. The chronicle of the Newport Folk Festival from 1963 to 1966 earned Lerner his first Academy Award nomination for a slice of music history that included Bob Dylan’s first public performance using an electric guitar in 1965. “Festival” has been restored and is getting a special edition release through the Criterion Collection on Sept. 12.
In 1967, the title earned the Venice Film Festival’s San Giorgio Prize, awarded from 1956-67 to artistic works contributing to the progress of civilization. “My father was over the moon about that award, because he got to meet Fellini and sit and talk with him a while,” Lerner recalls.
“He caught lightning in a bottle,” Lewis says of “Festival” “Dylan going electric was a hugely important event in music, but since he actually did that in a New York recording studio months earlier, I’ll go out on a limb and say that equally significant was the footage Murray caught of the early U.S. black blues musicians who performed there and inspired a new generation. Artists like Howlin’ Wolf, Mississippi John Hurt and John Lee Hooker didn’t have many performing opportunities at that time in the U.S. They were more popular in England. The one place they did find a home in America was the Newport Folk Festival.”
Lerner, a thorough documentarian, didn’t focus exclusively on the stars and the main stage. “There is a sequence where he captures Delta bluesman Son House in a field playing for a small group of people, among them Mike Bloomfield and Paul Butterfield and you see, through Murray’s lens, these young white Jewish musicians from Chicago being transfixed by the blues, and two years later they come up with electric blues-rock. Murray actually caught the big bang.”
Atmospheric touches that captured the environs, the audience, even opinionated bystanders, would become a signature of Lerner’s style. In documenting the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival in the U.K. — at which Hendrix and Jim Morrison of the Doors were captured on film for the last time — Lerner famously captured British conservatives commenting negatively about hippies and free love. The British band Oasis would sample dialogue from his 1996 film “Message to Love: The Isle of Wight Festival” for their 2000 song “F–king in the Bushes.”
The filmmaker wound up gaining control of the Isle of Wight footage, which was awarded to him by a judge after the producers failed to pay him for his work. “Initially it was a Pyrrhic victory, because that legal process took three years, by which time there wasn’t much demand for a three-year-old music show, but he did other projects and archived it” until out-dated became iconic.
Due to his keen ear, unerring eye and exhaustive coverage, Lerner was able to productively mine his material over decades. In the months preceding his death he was working on a documentary about Joni Mitchell. Titled “Both Sides Now: Joni Mitchell Live at the Isle of Wight 1970,” it offers insight into a troubled performance (at which she is heckled by the crowd to the point where she breaks down in tears) and includes some current interviews. Due for release in 2018, it is the 11th complete project from the concert.
Films featuring the music of Jimi Hendrix, The Who, Leonard Cohen, Miles Davis, The Moody Blues and Emerson, Lake and Palmer emerged from the multi-day event. From his Newport Folk footage, Lerner crafted the iconic “The Other Side of the Mirror: Bob Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival,” released in 2007. In 2009 he received a Grammy nomination for 2009’s “Amazing Journey: The Story of The Who.” His footage was used extensively in the 2005 PBS American Masters presentation “No Direction Home: Bob Dylan.”
“He loved music, but he was curious about life,” Noah Lerner says, pointing out that in the mid-′70s his father made some 3D films, including “Magic Journeys” for Disney and “Sea Dream,” which ran for many years at marine parks worldwide. He also made “To Be A Man,” about the educational system at Yale, where Lerner taught and helped create a film studies program.
Irascible but charming, Lerner was “in some ways the cliché of a film producer — he loved to chomp on unlit cigars and talk on the phone,” Noah adds.
Lerner was born in Philadelphia and raised in New York. He attended Harvard on a full scholarship, according to his son, graduating in 1948. An English major, his sojourn there predated a formal film curriculum, though with classmates including Robert Young (who went on to found New York’s DuArt Film Lab) he started the first campus film society.
Lerner, who died of kidney failure, is survived by his wife Judith, to whom he was married for 60 years; his son; daughter-in-law Julie; and two grandchildren. Private services will be held Wednesday in New York.