Isle of Wight fest hits theatres again

Some musicians go a long way for spectacle — lasers makeup and inflatable pigs have all been par for the course. The Who didn’t need any of that. By 1970 they had already perfected and moved beyond mod rock well on their way to becoming hard rock’s greatest act. When they played at the Isle of Wight festival that year Keith Moon could barely be contained by his drum set. Lion-maned singer Roger Daltry prowled the stage like a befringed god while bassist John Entwistle’s ghoulish skeleton costume practically glowed in the dark. Mastermind Pete Townshend meanwhile windmilled his way through “My Generation” and the entirety of Tommy . Forget inflatable pigs — The Who were spectacle.

Director Murray Lerner was there for all of it. Wight’s organizers had been impressed by his Oscar-nominated Festival a look at the movement-spawning Newport Folk Festival and were hoping to screen it at their event. It didn’t work out but Lerner had another suggestion — he’d make a new film a warts-and-all look at the music and business of the Isle of Wight.

“My thinking in advance was that there was going to be a tension between the commercialism of the music industry and the idealism of the music” Lerner recalls. “[That was] the overarching concept of my filming the Isle of Wight and going behind the scenes — seeing what the promoters were doing. We pre-lit their offices and filmed all the different conflicts and tensions and everything that was happening. As a matter of fact they were really into it. So much that they would call me and say ‘come on over.’”

He was right as it turns out. Despite a ticket price of only £3 thousands of music fans crashed the gates. While the same thing had happened at Woodstock a year earlier Wight’s organizers weren’t as laid-back chastising their anti-capitalist (or possibly just cheap) crowd. To many the tension that marred the 1970 Isle of Wight festival sits as a perfect midpoint between the flower power high-water mark of Woodstock and the movement’s nadir at Altamont. Lerner remembers Kris Kristofferson telling one of his sidemen “I think they’re going to shoot us” (“Metaphorically I think” Lerner adds “but maybe not. He was scared”).

Lerner’s document of Wight’s backstage happenings lingered in limbo for a quarter century finally emerging in 1997 as Message to Love: The Isle of Wight Festival . The hours of concert footage he gathered suffered largely the same fate with The Who — Live at the Isle of Wight Festival 1970 hitting home video in 1996 to claim its place alongside Led Zeppelin’s The Song Remains the Same as one of the era’s defining concert films — an era that in the eyes of many has yet to be matched.

“The filmmaking wasn’t as sophisticated [or as] mechanical” says Lerner when asked what sets those early rock films apart. “You weren’t always on the instrument at the right moment. You were feeling pulled by the emotion of the cameraman and the director. You definitely felt that. It wasn’t lifeless.”

Fans will be able to experience that life for themselves when a remastered version of The Who’s performance is released in theatres this week and to Blu Ray and DVD on 2 24. It’s not quite the same as being there but Lerner says it’s close.

“On one level it’s better than being there” he says “because there are very few people who are going to get that impact of the performance. And at the Isle of Wight the sound system wasn’t that great so the surround sound wasn’t that great. In a way the only thing missing is the physical presence of thousands of people around you. So I think it’s a mixture. You get more than if you were there and in a way a little less.”