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Perhaps George Will was right in 2005 when he warned about “increasingly potent strains of marijuana.” Just think of all the people at this year’s Bonnaroo who preordered a “collectible” DVD record of the festival for $10—a $6.95 discount from the general market, but still $10 too much. Especially when you consider you’re paying to trigger memories of the $9 you spent on a fried Twinkie, or how you upset the medical tent with your air-guitar accompaniment to the Beastie Boys’ “Intergalactic.”
But unwelcome flashbacks aren’t the main pitfall of DVDs of concerts and festivals. The latter in particular—the great majority of them produced without a director—have become warmed-over buffets, in which you get one number each from a handful of bands (often not the best number, either) along with obligatory crowd-pans and artlessly wiggling young women.
Still, the quality of a concert flick doesn’t depend so much on the artistry as it does on the performers—and a sense that something more durable than a rock concert took place. The Last Waltz is a remarkable film, but it shouldn’t take a Scorsese to make a concert movie that repays repeat viewing. Even in a year that offered marketers many routes to consumers’ wallets—the 40th anniversary of Woodstock! the eighth anniversary of Bonnaroo!—there were few glimmers of hope—and enough turkeys to sate the enhanced appetites of audiences at Bonnaroo, Gathering of the Vibes, and Burning Man combined.
John Lennon & the Plastic Ono Band
Live in Toronto ’69
Touted by the, uh, company that released it as having “signalled the end of the Beatles,” this document of the Toronto Rock and Roll Revival Festival merely signaled the end of John Lennon’s credibility. Stick around for the first segment, in which two generations of Diddleys (Bo and his daughter) do an admirable stomp, Jerry Lee Lewis plays the piano with his cowboy boot, and Little Richard shrieks in the grand camp tradition…but hit the refreshment stand for a 50 cent beer as soon as Lennon & Yoko take the stage for such regrettable avant-gardeisms as “Don’t Worry Kyoko (Mummy’s Only Looking for Her Hand in the Snow).” Eric Clapton plays solos and doesn’t look too happy about it.
Woodstock: 40th Anniversary
Ultimate Collector’s Edition
In the sea of 2009 music DVDs, this is the Titanic—clothed in buckskin-fringe, featuring mindless apocrypha like a 60-page commemorative LIFE reprint, an iron-on Woodstock patch, and remastered in Blu-Ray so you can see Country Joe’s gaptooth as though it were right there in the room. The film itself, sure, is worthy enough: Hendrix’s sloppy-but-seminal set is still fresh, Joe Cocker’s even moreso, Arlo Guthrie actually sounds hip, the Dead look hearteningly reconciled with the idea of the East Coast, and you can almost forgive Albert Grossman for refusing to license the Band’s set (this version, like all others, excludes it). Bells and whistles? Whatever, ’tis the season. But this numbered, limited-edition set’s self-declared “enhanced collectibility” is kitschier than anything Sha Na Na does here. And while the “fact sheet” enumerating festival births (2), miscarriages reported (4), and number of cauldrons of rice-carrot-raisin combo made at the Hog Farm Commune (51) gives the legendary concert some quantitative heft, listing the price for an ounce of grass ($15) dissonates powerfully with the price of this item at Melody Records ($59.99). If you’re willing to overpay for dinosaur footage, aim for Monterey Pop!—a comparative steal at $31.99 from Amazon. Woodstock director Michael Wadleigh was no D.A. Pennebaker, and at Monterey, Pennebaker caught many of the Woodstock acts: 1) at the peak of their powers; and 2) at the real peak of the ’60s.
The Secret Policeman Rocks!
Another anniversary offering—2009 is the 30th anniversary of the first Secret Policeman’s Ball, and as the title suggests, this film sidesteps the variety-show comedy that defined the Mermaid Frolics, Policeman’s predecessor, in favor of ad hoc supergroupery (characteristic moment: Sting leading various strung-out rockers through a reggae version of “I Shall Be Released” in 1981). The Ball likes to pat itself on the back for accomplishments merited and otherwise: giving birth to Live Aid (which it did); providing the inspiration for MTV’s Unplugged series (unlikely, though Pete Townshend and Martin Lewis insist on it). Here, the most worthwhile moments are indeed the strange-unplugged-bedfellows ones: a Townshend–John Williams duet on “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and an acoustic “Imagine” by Mark Knopfler and Chet Atkins. Phil Collins alone at a piano? Not so much.
Otis Redding, The Best: See & Hear
If you pry out the umpteenth greatest hits CD from its jewel case—12 fine tracks, none of them live—you’ll discover a chestnut of a DVD featuring desultory footage from the 1967 Stax tour. Highlights throughout are Steve Cropper and Duck Dunn, and Booker T. turns in a characteristically stylish performance. Sam & Dave and Redding are exactly what you’d want, and if you’ve never dug Redding at Monterey, you could do worse than starting here.
In explaining unusual exclusions on discs such as this, producers often cite “licensing disagreements.” Whatever the cause, this 2009 groaner neglects the hoarier stars: There’s no Allen Toussaint, no Merle Haggard. But also, for some reason, no Animal Collective, no TV on the Radio, and definitely no Wilco. Raphael Saadiq cuts it, as does Phish’s one number (“Down With Disease”), but Snoop Dogg at this point should maybe stick to reality TV, and while the Decemberists look and sound great, this disc will remind you that YouTube’s streaming quality is, as no-doubt future Bonnaroo headliner Paul McCartney once said, “getting better all the time.”