Blu-ray Review: Festival | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Saturday, February 22nd, 2020  


Studio: Criterion

Oct 09, 2017 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

For three years between 1963 and 1965, filmmaker Murray Lerner led a crew through the grounds of the Newport Folk Festival. Without a clearly-stated mission, they wandered the fest, capturing sets, chatting with attendees and artists alike, and chronicling the goings-on of these massive, musical gatherings. In the process, they caught not only a pivotal moment in popular music, but the beginnings of the ‘60s counterculture, when musicians and their fans first turned their focus toward politics. (If it hadn’t been for many of the artists who played Newport in the mid-60s, there’s no guarantee Under the Radar would be publishing our regular Protest features with artists seeking social change.)

The crew’s loose focus on any one subject actually works in the documentary’s favor. With the way that we’re popped in and out of conversations and performances, Festival makes viewers feel as if they’re casually attending the festival, exploring the grounds, discovering artists and dropping in on sets. Festival notably doesn’t include subtitles or place cards naming its performers. This total lack of identifiers works like an equalizer, making the no-name artists seem of level importance to the star power. Instantly recognizable folksters like Peter, Paul & Mary, Joan Osborne, and, of course, Bob Dylan are interspersed between line dancing troupes, gospel choruses, and raspy bluesmen. Further blurring the lines are the unclear dividers between the three years’ festivals; in one scene Dylan is performing an early acoustic set, while minutes later he’s shown soundchecking his infamous “plugged-in” set of 1965. While Criterion has included optional subtitles listing artists and song titles for those who want them, we’d encourage you to try the film without that option first – the whole effect is more hypnotic. Festival was nominated for the Best Documentary Academy Award, and Lerner tried to follow it up with a similar feature about the 1970 Isle of Wight festival; that wasn’t completed until 1997, when it was released as Message to Love.  

Criterion’s director-approved Blu-ray and DVD release not only presents the classic music documentary with a bold, eye-popping black and white transfer, but more importantly with remastered audio: Festival sounds absolutely fantastic, as close to audiophile quality as we’ll possibly get given the nature of its recordings. Lerner passed away just days before this disc’s release, aged 90, but is fortunately present throughout its bonus materials, such as a new Making Of featurette and a series of interviews Lerner went back and conducted with the musicians since he shot the documentary in the 1960s. Music fans will also appreciate several never-before-seen, uncut performances shot by the crew, including songs by Johnny Cash and John Lee Hooker.


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Robert Frank
July 16th 2018

Joan Osborne? She was born in 1962 and would have been four when the film was released.