This film was released only a few years ago, constructed from footage almost three decades old. One wonders why it had never seen the light of day before. "Message to Love" is an instant classic, a rock documentary that deserves to sit up on the same mantle as "Woodstock", "Monterrey Pop" and "Gimme Shelter". The Isle of Wight Festival in August of 1970 was the last of its kind, an event that was supposed to be an English Woodstock but descended into utter chaos as the Aquarian hippie ideal knocked heads with the emerging juggernaut of a corporate music industry ready to mass-market a "product" to the growing legions of rock fans. But despite the hypocrisy, mismanagement and unruly behavior that director Murray Lerner ("When We Were Kings") so keenly observes, he does not lose sight of the fact that a lot of great music went down during those five days. With an amazingly eclectic lineup that has Miles Davis and Tiny Tim as its polar extremes, Lerner and his crew captured many memorable performances from both the icons of the 60s and the rising stars of the 70s. If your memory of rock festival flicks is limited to the good vibes of Monterrey or Woodstock, you'll likely be taken aback by the unrestrained belligerence that permeated the air at Wight. Rikki, the so-called "Master of Ceremonies" is the lightning rod here, as he both patronizes and berates the hordes who have descended on the festival site. It turns out that some 600,000 fans have reached the island by ferry but only a fraction of those have any intention of buying a ticket. A tent city called "Desolation Row" sprouts up on a nearby hillside and is populated by folks who are determined to get a closer view at no charge. This tension is reflected in the selection of onstage peformances, like the Who (very much in their prime) ripping through an incediary "Young Man Blues" and the Doors' sinister versions of "When the Music's Over" and "The End". The Isle of Wight has long been notable for being the last performances of both Jim Morrison (he would be gone within a year) and Jimi Hendrix, who died less than three weeks later. Hendrix's appearance here only adds to his already large legacy--his music sounds as revolutionary as ever as he wails away on three songs with the Band of Gypsies, including an otherworldly "Voodoo Chile". "Message to Love" also opens a window onto the growing compartmentilization of rock, with three genres taking root at the start of the 70s. Hard rock (Ten Years After, Free, Rory Gallagher), singer-songwriters (Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Kris Kristofferson) and progressive rock (the Moody Blues, Jethro Tull and the audacious debut of Emerson, Lake and Palmer)are all competing for their slice of an increasingly large pie. With Rikki and the other promoters dubiously claiming that no other bands will take the stage without being paid in full with cash (in hopes of getting potential gatecrashers to pay up) the musicians are caught in an uneasy position. Trying to show they are "of the people" while knowing full well they are not going through life playing for free, it makes for some of the most interesting stage patter on record. Lerner lets the fans have their say as well, including one who notes that the bands are becoming "plastic gods" while another vividly describes the festival as a "feudal court scene"--with the stars as royalty, the groupies as the courtiers and the audience as the serfs. He may have gone one step farther and noted the moat-like double fencing with a dog-patrolled no-man's-land in between (actually closer in design to the former Berlin Wall) that serves to hopefully keep out the Desolation Row "barbarians". But as one of the promoter's people notes, in the end it doesn't matter if the music's good. This is true enough as the film closes with the Doors, Hendrix and the Who being edited in for one more song each. An uneasy truce is reached but when Rikki flashes a double peace sign at the crowd he only succeeds in looking like Richard Nixon. An era has passed before our eyes as the rose-colored glow of the 60s counterculture is smudged by the inevitable rise of the mass-consumer pop marketplace.
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