By Megan Bianco
For the past couple of weeks I’ve been going through a pretty big classic rock binge influenced by all the retrospectives on the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” 50th anniversary. And like most music fans, I’m revisiting not only the albums and singles, but also the concert footage from that era of legends.
No matter how many times I revisit concert films and music documentaries from the 1960s, I’m always amazed at how amateurish the camerawork and editing was back then. Take the classic “Cream: Farewell Concert,” a film and television special which focused on the hard rock band Cream’s final show before breaking up in 1968.
The footage, even by TV standards for the late ‘60s, looks more like home-movie footage that was edited by a first-year film-school student, with way too many zooms, close-ups and hardly any wide shots of the instruments. The bassist is stereotypically the forgotten member of a band, but here Jack Bruce has the most screen time, even more so than lead guitarist Eric Clapton. Perhaps it’s because Bruce has the advantage of singing the most often.
But why do so many filmmakers of that era focus on face more than body, and even sometimes the wrong faces during solos? (A rare exception is D.A. Pennebaker, who knew what he was doing with his 1968 “Monterey Pop” feature.) Even the iconic concert documentary “Woodstock” (1970) has too many face close-ups.
One theory I’ve come across is that guitarists didn’t like being filmed back then out of fear that rivals would see and try to copy their finger licks. That would make sense in the case of Clapton, since the camera turns away from him in nearly every show performance he did that decade. Neil Young also refused to be seen on camera while performing at Woodstock with Crosby, Stills & Nash.
But my personal theory is that when the rock music scene was booming in the ‘60s, directors and editors didn’t really know how to shoot concerts yet, and were still taking cues from movies. Martin Scorsese’s acclaimed concert film “The Last Waltz” (1978) does this intentionally many times, as he is a film master, who wants to focus on the emotion of the song’s performers, rather than the instrument technique.
The inspiration to shoot more close-ups of the instruments seems to have arrived in the 1970s, because there are plenty of them in Led Zeppelin’s “The Song Remains the Same” (1976) and the Who’s “The Kids are Alright” (1979). More recently this is executed very well in the White Stripes’ “Under Great White Northern Lights” (2009).
In many ways, making concert films in the ‘60s is reminiscent of how traditional film narrative was being developed in the silent movie era. A new medium was formed and the movie makers were just slowly figuring out the best way to create cinematic art. Some of the old rock footage might be irritating to watch, but could also be seen as a history lesson of sorts, as we celebrate the pop culture phenomenon from 1967 on its 50th anniversary.
Megan Bianco is a Southern California-based movie reviewer and content writer with a degree from California State University Northridge.
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