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Fillmore: The Last Days

Director: Various
Cast: Various

(US DVD: 2 Jun 2009)

Originally released in 1972 after the close of the Fillmore in San Francisco in 1971, Fillmore: The Last Days marks the preparations and performances for the final shows at the Fillmore West. Bill Graham’s outsized personality is on full display here as he is alternately blustering, funny, and enraged.


His decision to close the Fillmore is one that united groups both legendary, as well as some destined to be footnotes in a larger rock ‘n’ roll history. Providing a window into such a specific place and time, the documentary confirms the Fillmore’s status as the celebrated launching pad for countless bands of the 1960s.


The documentary opens with Lamb’s “Hello Friends”. Led by charismatic singer Barbara Mauritz, Lamb’s sound is a mix of folk, rock, and jazz. Cold Blood is up next with another strong female vocalist in Lydia Pense and a set of two songs that exemplify their bluesy style complete with energetic horn section. Quicksilver Messenger Service set of rhythmic rock (that bears more than a passing resemblance to Santana) gets an introduction by Graham as “some of the baddest people in the world”.


Between performances, the documentary focuses on Graham’s arrangements for these final shows. He seems to be perpetually on the phone haranguing people, frequently getting angry and yelling hysterically. One such conversation is especially telling as Graham is on the phone:


What have I said for months and months what’s wrong with this business?  That these groups have gotten to be too authoritarian and they have a right to be ‘cause money talks, success controls. Why do you think I want out?


Several calls on the subject of Santana’s demands for playing the final night bring Graham to his boiling point. He is incredulous over the group’s worries over bootlegging and the fact that they are unwilling to agree blindly to a performance. When they finally appear, they close out the documentary with a three-song set that leaves the audience spent. 


One group that manages to keep Graham in good spirits is The Grateful Dead. Graham is obviously close with the band members and his respect for them as a group, and for Jerry Garcia in particular, is apparent. Garcia’s rehearsal jam with New Riders of The Purple Sage stands out for its relaxed musicality. The Grateful Dead are one of the highlights of the documentary, especially during their rousing cover of Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode”, whipping the crowd into a frenzy, and playing their classic “Casey Jones”. 


Perhaps one of the more dated of the performances is by It’s a Beautiful Day, a band whose name rightly implies a flower power, psychedelic sound that is wholly of that era. Their “White Bird” seems almost out of place in the company of the other groups featured. Yet, at the same time, their presence is exactly what makes Fillmore: The Last Days as revealing and engaging a documentary as it is.


Aside from all the performances and Graham’s working behind the scenes, the documentary also offers more personal insight into Graham himself. He speaks candidly about his childhood, first as a refugee during World War II in Europe and then as a foster child in New York. His own openness is surprising to Graham, as he says he’s never wanted to revisit that time in his life until recently. It’s a moment that places him in a context outside of the music business and humanizes him in an unexpected way removed from his more dramatic moments.


Marked by extended jam sessions, blistering guitar solos, and big vocals, Fillmore: The Last Days offers a portrait of not only the closing of an historic place in American music history, but also a glimpse into a singular time in that history. From Jefferson Airplane’s exciting performance of “Volunteers” / “We Can Be So Good Together”, to the surreal quality of The Rowan Brothers’ rehearsal during a basketball game, to Elvin Bishop’s passionate “The Sky Is Crying”, Fillmore: The Last Days covers a diverse group that seems somewhat at odds with Graham himself. However, Graham’s genius was in his ability to spot real talent and his fearlessness in presenting groups that he liked, rather than solely groups that would sell – sadly, an almost unheard of concept today. 


While there are no extras to speak of, it should be noted that this release overlaps only occasionally with the 1972 audio compilation of the final concerts. As the documentary has been out of print for some time, its release includes performances that have been previously been unavailable.

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J.M. Suarez has been a contributing writer at PopMatters since 2008. She's happy to talk about TV any time, any place. Really.


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