Writing in these pages a year ago, I speculated that the American Cinematheque’s annual Mods & Rockers festival of psychedelic-and-paisley-era movie classics, rockumentaries, 007 spoofs and assorted other ’60s-centric pop-culture detritus had begun to show its age. With its avalanche of movies reconstituted from previous editions, the 2006 program suggested that the festival’s metaphorical miniskirts and buckskins were starting to fray, and that to quote no less august a figure of M&R’s beloved Weltanschauung than George Harrison, even with Mods & Rockers, all things must pass.
It was time, in other words, for the partial reinvention and refocusing of the series that the programmers have now achieved. This year, Mods & Rockers has largely — and wisely — shed its 007-inspired side. Instead, there is a mother lode of music documentaries, including the pioneering classics of the form: Don’t Look Back, Woodstock, Monterey Pop, Gimme Shelter and Wattstax are all here, together forming a kind of monolithic ’60s-rock-doc Pentateuch. In addition, there are new films about Stax and Atlantic Records; two rare Maysles brothers movies (Led Zeppelin Live at the Royal Albert Hall, from 1970, and What’s Happening!, a profile of the Beatles’ 1964 visit to the USA, long lost to litigation and ownership disputes); and a recently unearthed Norwegian TV broadcast from 1967 of the legendary Stax Revue road show in full-throated, foot-stomping excelsis. There’s even D.A. Pennebaker’s ’65 Revisited, for Dylanologists who wish to see outtake footage from its double-bill partner, Don’t Look Back. And fans of M&R’s hardy, perennial crowd pleaser Tonite Let’s All Make Love in London are advised to look out for In the Beginning Was the Image, Paul Cronin’s profile of its myth-encrusted director, Peter Whitehead.
Mods & Rockers has always been predicated upon the rich pop-cultural exchanges and transfusions that were effected in the 1960s between swinging, mod-pop London and hippie-trippy California, London having been the cultural capital of the decade until early 1967, when it was briefly superseded by Haight-Ashbury. But Los Angeles was always waiting in the wings as hippiedom’s Second City (although musically, L.A. always kicked S.F.’s ass!). This year, that rich cultural seam is once again successfully strip-mined, with an emphasis largely, by hazard or design, on the westward movement from London to the Golden State: American exile Richard Lester returns to the States for the first time in more than a decade to make Petulia in 1967 San Francisco; the Rolling Stones meet their Waterloo at a Northern California speedway in the Maysles’ sulfurous Gimme Shelter; and in The Party, a transplanted Peter Sellers does to Hollywood what Dr. Strangelove wished to do to all mankind. (For the reverse version of this cultural exchange, look no further than the Anglo-reconfigured R&B in A Hard Day’s Night and the Zep doc.)
If forced to choose a single exemplary movie from this teeming cornucopia, I’d make it Tony Palmer’s legendary BBC documentary All My Loving. Made after Lennon and McCartney challenged Palmer — then a classical-music documentarist — to encapsulate the 1968 London music scene in one hour of screen time, the film includes sessions and live outings by a recently Syd-less Pink Floyd, the Who in full destructive mode, Hendrix and the Experience (Noel Redding ’fro alert!), Cream, and Frank Zappa. Palmer’s great innovation was to splice the music to violent, upsetting newsreel footage of the bloody year of 1968, and by doing so to draw attention to rock music’s intimate connections with the exploding Zeitgeist. Watching a Viet Cong guerrilla getting shot in the head on the streets of Saigon — his brains literally fountaining out of his skull for 17 seconds as he reels on the pavement — to the sounds of “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun” is a chastening and harrowing experience I’ve not forgotten in the 30 years since I first saw it. Congratulations to Mods & Rockers for making it newly available, and for successfully righting what last year looked like a leaky and listing vessel.
MODS & ROCKERS 2007 | American Cinematheque at the Egyptian and Aero theaters | Through August 1 | www.americancinematheque.com