Someone at the Criterion Collection really loves music documentaries, which are well-represented by the label. The latest film from that genre to join the collection is Murray Lerner’s simply-titled Festival, a film that captures the essence of the Newport Folk Festival from 1963 to 1966. The 1967 film earned a nomination for Best Documentary Feature at the Oscars, but has since been overshadowed by more popular music documentaries like Woodstock and Monterey Pop. But Festival came before all that. It’s like watching the slow birth of one cultural moment clashing with the death of another in a span of 98 minutes.
Lerner’s film isn’t just unique because of the time span it covers, but also because Lerner doesn’t focus just on the musicians on the stage. He aimed to capture the character of a festival that mixed the blues, gospel, folk and (whether the audience wanted to admit it or not) rock into a musical melting pot. After all, there is nothing that unites people like music and the 1960s Newport Folk Festivals were a testament to that.
This was the only place in the world where you could hear Mississippi John Hurt rambling through “Candy Man Blues” for the first time publicly since he recorded songs in 1928 and Bob Dylan yodeling “All I Really Want to Do” at the same event. Here, you’ll find Paul Butterfield’s Blues Band educating the audience on the limits of the harmonica, within moments of Peter, Paul and Mary singing “The Times They Are A-Changin.'” There’s Johnny Cash marching through “I Walk The Line.” Fannie Lou Hamer, who would go on to march at Selma and was a major figure in the Civil Rights movement, sings African-American spirituals. You’ll see Pete Seeger orchestrating it all from the sides of the stage.
And in between all these musical performances are the sometimes funny and often surprising enlightening interviews with fans and the musicians. It’s funny to hear these young people, who are now in their 60s and 70s, predicting what the future would be like. Lerner provides no onscreen text to tell us when each interview was done, so we don’t know precisely what current events they are thinking about as they speak. That makes the film a more overarching statement on the early 1960s. The film isn’t pegged to a specific day or year, but a specific time in history. Vietnam hasn’t escalated and the assassinations of 1968 haven’t happened yet. The optimism of 1960 is still in the air, even as the Cold War rages.
Festival says so much in its short time. When Dylan tries to get through “Maggie’s Farm,” we’re seeing the end of the folk music revival. It’s the death of that style of music’s stature as the “voice of a generation.” But it also proves that these songs are timeless. You can get the same thing out of “Turn! Turn! Turn!” today as we did 50 years ago. At one point, a twenty-something Joan Baez tells Lerner’s camera that we can’t forget about truth and love. That hasn’t changed.
Criterion’s Blu-ray release of Festival is one of the most eye-opening Black & White releases on the high-definition format of the year. Although there are traces of damage throughout the film, the 2K restoration looks beautiful. It sounds marvelous, too. The disc includes a mono soundtrack.
Unlike the massive, two-disc set for Monterey Pop or the in-depth extras on Dont Look Back, Festival gets a modest release. However, all three features are worthwhile. First, Criterion provides a half-hour making-of feature with interviews of Lerner, associate editor Alan Heim and assistant editor Gordon Quinn. Next, there’s another half-hour program called When We Played Newport that’s a collection of archival interviews with musicians and others who played a role in setting up the Newport Folk Festival.
Criterion also includes a small collection of outtake performances. Of course, it’s not like the two-hour outtakes collection from the Monterey Pop disc. But getting to see the full performance of Johnny Cash’s “I Walk The Line” is fantastic. Criterion also includes an optional subtitle track that identifies the singer and songs being performed. (As previously noted, Lerner didn’t include any text in the film originally, other than a list at the beginning of the film.)
But wait, there is more! Festival actually gets a very thick booklet. Amanda Petrusich provides the essay “Who Knows What’s Gonna Happen Tomorrow?” and folk music expert Mary Katherine Aldin provides short bios for every musician in the film.