Book shows the striking depth of filmmaker Tony Palmer's music expertise

by Robert W. Butler

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

2 September 2009


KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Even hard-core cineastes may draw a blank when confronted with the name Tony Palmer.

But John Tibbetts of the University of Kansas’ film department, author of the just-published “All My Loving? The Films of Tony Palmer,” wants to change that.

The book is the first biographical treatment of a filmmaker who, it has been said, “assaults us at times with the overwhelming visceral power of the film medium and with his mastery of it.”

One reason Palmer is little known in this country is that most of his films — which range from documentaries to experimental shorts to full-blown biopics — have an esoteric edge and tend to be about art and artists, especially classical composers.

Another is that his work often is made for and shown on British television.

It was through Palmer’s composer biographies — Wagner, Shostakovich, Puccini, Dvorak and Hindemith, among others — that Tibbetts, a specialist in movies about musicians, fell for his work.

“What surprised me was that while I was first attracted by Tony’s movies about classical music, he has often worked with popular musicians,” Tibbetts said. “That, for me, was a real challenge. I didn’t expect that somebody who knew so much about Wagner and Shostakovich also knew so much about Jimi Hendrix and Cream. He even directed the Frank Zappa movie ‘200 Motels.’

“But then Tony doesn’t place music in an ivory tower. He sees a commonality in all sorts of music. He has great respect for popular artists like Rory Gallagher and Leonard Cohen who see their music not just as something that panders to popular tastes but which actually stretches it.”

Beginning his career as a journalist in the swinging London of the 1960s, Palmer first gained fame and notoriety for his hourlong experimental documentary “All My Loving,” which the BBC aired at the end of one broadcast day in 1968.

A barrage of popular music (including that of the Beatles) and kaleidoscopic images spanning the Vietnam War, street riots, rock concerts and grooving audiences of young people, “Loving” outraged conservatives and puzzled most everyone.

“This is a documentary that wears an angry heart on his sleeve,” Tibbetts said, explaining why he chose that particular film to celebrate in his book’s title.

“I watched ‘All My Loving’ being shown to a Beatles convention in Chicago last year, and it still has the power to cause a bit of an uproar,” Tibbetts said. “The film depicts rock and pop music in a socially responsive way, and it’s not always a pleasant sight. Those who showed up just for Beatles nostalgia were caught unawares.

“It’s about the bomb and social protest and how rock music both exploits and falls victim to those things. Technically, Tony exploits the clash inherent in any kind of montage. He pushes it to the max. He’s never letting you get complacent. He’s always shocking or delighting you.

“If it can upset people now, imagine what it was like for BBC viewers in 1968.”

In addition to his many films, Palmer is a theater director who has staged numerous operas and is a close associate of British playwright John Osborne (“Look Back in Anger”).

Palmer has a reputation as a “difficult” personality, one who single-mindedly pursues his vision with few concessions for the tastes of others. Tibbetts said he has seen that up close.

Through a happy coincidence, Tibbetts was wrapping up work on his book at the same time that Chrome Dreams/Voiceprint, a British media company, was preparing to release many of Palmer’s key films on DVD. Chrome Dreams decided to publish Tibbetts’ lavishly illustrated, 460-page biography.

The book is available at www.tonypalmerbook.com ; the DVD at www.tonypalmerdvd.com or through Amazon.com.

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