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The Lens: Woodstock - Part 3: Muddled mimics

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 8, 2009 - Whatever bad judgment clouded the air over Altamont, it couldn't match the sheer mercenary instinct that inspired "Medicine Ball Caravan," an inept attempt to cash in on the "Woodstock" bandwagon. Sometime in 1970 when the executives at Warner Brothers saw the truckloads of money "Woodstock" was bringing in, they looked for a sequel. With no "Woodstock 2" in the works, they decided to create their own, recruiting pioneering DJ Tom Donahue to lead a fleet of hippie-loaded buses across the country, with French documentary maker Francois Reichenbach on hand to capture the whole thing.

Through their record division, WB signed/created a new band, Stoneground, to join in on the excursion, and arranged for other performers, mostly from their label (Doug Kershaw, Alice Cooper, B.B. King, Delaney and Bonnie and the Youngbloods) to fly in for concerts along the way. With no real impetus for the "caravan" and the taint of commercialism hard to shake, nothing much really happened. Predictably, the project began to fall apart almost immediately, with a few participants publishing bitter behind-the-scenes memoirs.

With hours of footage and no real point of interest aside from a few predictable post-"Easy Rider" confrontations with small town cops, the producers brought in a "Woodstock" veteran to salvage the footage. Alas, not even Martin Scorsese, credited as associate producer, could find much of interest. The film conveys the feeling of being trapped on an overlong high school field trip, forever waiting for the next bus. The film was dropped into a few theaters without much publicity, too late to capitalize on "Woodstock," and slowly disappeared. It's never been available on video or DVD.

Note to Scorsese completists: You're not missing anything.

But even the makeshift "Medicine Ball Caravan" looks skillful compared to the ugliness of "Groupies," a truly awful 1970 film that balances a b-list of musical performances (Ten Years After, Joe Cocker, Spooky Tooth, Terry Reid) with long cinema-verite segments of the various women (and one very stoned and pathetic young man) who seek their affection. It's hard to tell when the film was shot or if it's even in sequence, and the participants are catty, shallow and not very bright - when they're straight (which is probably for about a quarter of the film's running time). It's all somewhat lurid, but completely lacking in any insight about these people and their attachment to the rock scene. If the filmmakers or their subjects had anything particularly original to say, it got lost somewhere in the drugs and the noise.

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Finally, a perfect complement to Wadleigh's film, and well worth seeing in its own right, Murray Lerner's "Message to Love" offers a concise lesson in how not to run a rock festival.

The promoters of the 1970 Isle of Wight festival were almost certainly conscious of the Woodstock legacy when they planned their event nearly a year later. They lined up an impressive list of performers, from Hendrix, The Who, The Doors and Joni Mitchell to Tiny Tim, Leonard Cohen and Miles Davis. They even persuaded Bob Dylan to make one of his few appearances in the wake of his 1966 motorcycle accident. They hired Lerner, a veteran of several years filming the Newport Folk Festival. And then the festival began and nearly everything that could go wrong did.

The sound system was so bad that one performer thought he was being booed by the crowd. Political activists browbeated the producers for not letting the crowd in for free. (It didn't matter, since a fence surrounding the event proved to be easily scalable.) The promoters feuded. Money to pay the performers became tight. A fan rushed the stage during Joni Mitchell's set, visibly terrifying the performer. Lerner's film is as much about the turmoil behind the scenes as it is the (frequently good) music on stage (He's also released individual films of the complete Hendrix and Who sets, with a Leonard Cohen soon to follow.)

If you haven't heard much about it, it's because the film itself is an example of the bad luck and worse planning that haunted the event. Due to disagreements between the producers and a shortage of funds, Lerner's film was completed until 1997, more than 25 years after the event.

Is there a lesson to be learned from these films? "Woodstock" and the concert films that followed it were (with rare exceptions) shaggy, self-indulgent and even a little smug, reveling in the myth of a new society being created in the muddy fields of Max Yasgur's farm, but not doing much to sustain it. Forty years distance makes us feel a little put off by the druggy figures of "Groupies" or the naive trekkers of "Medicine Ball Caravan," yet there's something about that naivety - the fact that the people in these films seem relatively sincere, don't see the dark clouds hovering toward them in "Gimme Shelter" - that remains fascinating.

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The Lens is the blog of Cinema St. Louis, hosted by the Beacon.