Celebration at Big Sur, now playing citywide, is the warmest and most intimate folk-rock film ever made. It is also by far the most honest.
Done in cinema verite style, Celebration at Big Sur was made at the Big Sur Folk Festival of 1969 and should not be confused with the A&M record album Celebration, which was put together from performances at the 1970 Big Sur Folk Festival. Never before has a film captured the modern musician's essence of humanity the way Big Sur does at the 1969 event. It shows the performers relating to each other and with the audience in a way never possible on the club and concert trail.
The 1969 festival was staged at Esalen Institute in Big Sur. The performers appeared without fee, as is traditional at the annual event. Whenever there are any profits left after the bills have been paid they are divided equally among all the entertainers. These were also the terms under which the film was made and distributed.
Celebration as produced by rotund Carl Gottlieb, the cherubic former member of The Committee who also served as MC a year later at the 1970 festival, and directed by the husband-wife team of Baird Bryant-Johanna Demetrakas. Many talented people were involved, including former Lovin' Spoonful member Zalman Yanovsky, who did some sound recording, and film maker Pat O'Neill (7362, Runs Good). In co-operation with Bryant, O'Neill had added some breathtaking special effects to Celebration. Of course, the primary special effects were provided by such performers as Joan Baez, Crosby-Stills-Nash & Young, Joni Mitchell, Dorothy Morrison and John Sebastian, who all gave of themselves in a way which makes the film a memorable experience.
"There was so much energy at Big Sur it looked like it was going to burst ... with the mountains on one side and the ocean on the other, there was no place for the energy to go. The people who performed came just to get together in the sun after a summer of hard work .... The audience became the performers and the performers became the audience, as rock and folk merged into a community of people celebrating," says Gottlieb.
The performers come to the festival every year because of its relaxed and refreshing atmosphere of friendship and love. It resembles a large jam session because it is the only festival wherein the performers play together as opposed to each individual or group doing her, his or their own thing.
Among the film's highlights are Joan Baez performing "David's Song" (for husband David Harris), Joan and Dorothy Morrison dueting on "Oh Happy Day!" (is was Dorothy's lead voice as former member of the Edwin Hawkins Singers which so distinguished that hit single), all of the performers converting "Get Together" into a joyous audience sing-along, Steve Stills and John Sebastian joining together for "Mobile Line," Crosby-Stills-Nash & Young doing "Down By the River," Dorothy and The Combs Sisters singing "All God's Children Got Soul," Joni Mitchell introducing "Woodstock," Carol Ann Cisneros singing a compelling version of "Malaguena Salerose," and Joan Baez performing "Sweet Sir Galahad," while her sister, Mimi Farina, dances with husband Milan Melvin.
Gottlieb explains how this remarkable film originated:
"In the spring of 1969 we thought Bis Sur would make a good TV special. We tried to interest a backer. It couldn't be done. But give days before the festival began we were saved when festival planners advanced the necessary money to film the weekend. We started assembling the crew, gear and equipment at once, struggling to obtain the cameras, recorders, film stock and accessories needed. It was chaotic, nerve-racking and a sure drain on the emotional reserves. At midnight, when we took our camera down to the hot mineral baths and filmed a dozen musicians and friends in the buff (including by now exhausted producer Carl Gottlieb), the atmosphere of giddy relaxation was no act. We were all 'stoned' on fatigue, music and the excitement of the first day. The baths footage, like everything else that happened, was part of the total festival experience. When Stephen Stills lost his temper and got into an offstage hassle with a heckler, we filmed it. When they scuffled, we filmed it. And later, when Stephen apologized to the crowd and sang a moving solo of "Four Twenty" we filmed it. We tried to film it all, the performers, the audience, the performances, and the place that held it all together. Every possible element combined in a very happy union: the performers sang for themselves, for and with each other, and for and with the audience."
Celebration perfectly captures the mood of the event, and therefore itself becomes a powerful evocation of warmth and humanity as it does so.
Perhaps inevitable are the comparisons which will be made between Celebration and Woodstock although Celebration is an altogether different sort of film than Wadleigh's work. Wadleigh knew he was going to shoot at Woodstock well enough in advance of the event to prepare for the kind of film he wanted to make. Twenty-five cameramen filmed Woodstock and the result was a surfeit of footage and camera angles from which Wadleigh could construct his finished product. Therefore it is hardly surprising that the finished work features numerous quick cuts and multiple images.
Bryant, of course, did not have that kind of advance notice, and was subsequently caught with only one Aeroflex and two Eclairs with which to shoot. Obviously, then, he was not going to have the kind of choices that Wadleigh did when it came to editing the film. It is thus easy to understand why Bryant's film is only 82 minutes long, while Woodstock runs 190 minutes, and consists mostly of long single takes. What is remarkable is that, given such limitations, Celebration works so well.
Although it didn't seem so before, after viewing Celebration, Woodstock in retrospect seemed fragmented when compared to Bryant's movie. Celebration is more likable on a human level, mostly because it is warmer and more intimate than Wadleigh's spectacular epic.
Celebration at Big Sur is not only a "celebration," but a cause for celebration. See it.
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