Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss...
Thirty-four years ago, some 600,000 fans converged on the Isle of Wight to indulge in yet another massive outdoor musical festival. As tensions among gate-crashers and organizers grew, cameras rolled to capture the chaos and live performances, and preserve a bit of history in the process. Filmmaker Murray Lerner’s cinematic efforts resulted in the critically acclaimed documentaries Message to Love and The Who—Live at the Isle of Wight Festival 1970. Now under the guise of dramatic audio and video improvements, the latter is available in re-mastered format. But what exactly does the current DVD offer those who already own the original pressing? And what of viewers new to the Who’s dynamic set? Let’s take a moment to investigate:
The Good: Without question, the Who was at its creative peak in 1970. Barely a year removed from the debut of Tommy, the band had already stormed the stages at Woodstock and Leeds, cementing its reputation as an electrifying live act. The footage from the Isle of Wight evidences every component of the Who’s greatness: power chording and howling feedback, aggressive vocals, strafing drum beats, and of course, deafening bass rumble. Even the visual image of the band is classic; who doesn’t associate Townshend with his white boiler suit and cherry Gibson SG guitar, or Daltrey with flowing fringe? And who can forget Entwistle clad in his skeleton stage suit, or an exuberant Moon flailing away behind his kit? The sequences are riveting, as the world’s greatest band is caught at, or close to its zenith. Most notable is the jovial interaction between Townshend and Moon, as the two appear remarkably at ease before such an enormous audience. The Who having fun on stage? Strange but true, and captured on film for all to see.
The Bad: Watching the footage is an exercise in patience. There are far too many gratuitous pan shots of the masses, at the expense of quality screen time for the band. Precious seconds are lost as viewers are repeatedly bombarded with images of star-struck concert goers grooving and flashing peace signs; an obvious attempt to capture a similar aesthetic to the brilliant Woodstock documentary. Also problematic is the rapid-fire jump-cut editing; a dizzying viewing experience that takes away from much of the performance’s most critical moments. The film works best when the multiple camera angles are fixed solidly on the band, but numerous opportunities are lost as the camera operators are too often out of sync with the action on stage. Strangely, the footage alternates between frenetic and steady frame work, thus creating a decidedly haphazard feel to much of the film.
The Ugly: The terms “Re-mixed” and “Re-mastered” have become dubious descriptions when used in the context of material that has undergone a makeover. Viewers need to ask but three simple questions: Has the film been greatly enhanced since its first release just a few years ago? Is the visual and aural experience discernibly better after the re-engineering process? Are the improvements drastic enough to warrant a fresh DVD? The answers are all a resounding “No,” thus the disc’s re-release appears to be nothing more than a shrewd marketing ploy designed to capitalize on the band’s current world tour. Another point that bears mention: Although advertised as “the complete high energy 85 minute performance of The Who”, the film is NOT the complete set. Nor is the performance sequenced as it happened 34 years ago. Some clever cinematic sleight-of-hand has been employed to give the footage a linear appearance, as the included material is neatly spliced into two sections, “Non-Tommy songs” and “Tommy songs.” Granted, the splicing is expertly done so that the footage maintains fluidity, but any Who fan in the know realizes that it is not exactly as it was. Such a ploy falls somewhere between practical and disingenuous, with the latter being closer to the truth. Was the additional footage lost or destroyed? Or was a conscious decision made to edit the concert down to a manageable duration for DVD marketing purposes? With no answers to either inquiry, viewers are left wondering.
The Questionable: The only bonus material offered on the DVD comes in the form of a recently filmed 35 minute interview with Pete Townshend. Producer/Director Lerner queries the guitarist on a variety of topics, eliciting some vintage Townshend commentary. At times Lerner seems alarmingly uninformed about his subject, but dear Pete dazzles with humor, candor and an understated eloquence that makes him one of music’s genuine elder statesmen. While the interview segment is enjoyable and worthwhile, (Townshend offers some thought-provoking sound bites on the festival and the band’s legacy), it places the DVD in the same category as the recently marketed Then and Now CD, where Who fans were roped into purchasing a repetitive greatest hits disc in order to access a pair of freshly recorded tracks. Consumers who own the earlier version of the festival must decide whether the Townshend footage provides sufficient motivation to purchase the new DVD. As they contemplate that decision, one final production note must be considered. The end of the film contains several minutes of silent backstage footage in tribute to the fallen Keith Moon, consistent with the film’s original release prior to the untimely passing of John Entwistle. Yet with all the effort allegedly expended to improve the footage and justify the film’s re-release, it is unfathomable why a similar tribute was not edited in on behalf Entwistle. Excuses and explanations can be made for every other technical issue, but forgetting The Ox is a gross oversight on the part of Lerner and his team, one attributable to nothing more than sheer laziness and indifference, a non-effort that speaks volumes about the motivations behind the film’s current release. Should Who aficionados be disappointed? Probably more than that.
There is no debating that the bulk of the contained footage boasts the Who in peak form; the band is so powerful that many of the film’s negative attributes can be overlooked. That however does not negate the DVD’s shortcomings. The re-release has significant flaws, one of which is the lingering smell of opportunism. For those who are unfamiliar with the Who’s set and wish to see what live rock and roll is all about, The Who—Live at the Isle of Wight Festival 1970 is an important addition to their respective DVD libraries. As to others who already have the original DVD pressing, they will not be getting much for their additional expenditure. Re-mastered or not, the band’s 1970 performance was something to behold.