The Stunning Visuals And Sounds Of Nicolas Roeg’s 1972 Documentary: Glastonbury Fayre

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fairport convention

Fairport Convention At Glastonbury Fayre

As I finished writing this review, we were informed that David Bowie has passed away. Bowie was part of the concert featured in Nicolas Roeg’s documentary, but he was omitted from the film. Right now, I wish that he had been included, as there could never have been enough footage of David Bowie.

Last week’s entry into Lost In The 1970s With Generoso Blog featured a review of German director Stefan Paul’s 1979 concert film Reggae By Bus, which documented the 2nd edition of the now defunct Reggae Sunsplash Music Festival, which took place in Montego Bay back in year the film was released. As Jamaican music has always been near and dear to me, it was an unequivocal thrill to have finally have seen Paul’s film; though modestly shot with capable sound quality, Reggae By Bus successfully captures not only the music and energy of the event itself but of the community surrounding the festival and their thoughts on the importance of national music of Jamaica. So while I am still basking in the glow of that concert film, I thought to find Glastonbury Fayre, the only concert film directed by one of my all time favorite filmmakers and cinematographers, Nicolas Roeg, and although I am not a fan of most folk rock, I was curious to see what Roeg would come up with for an overall view of the event.

Glastonbury Fayre like Reggae By Bus chronicles the performers and goings on of the second incarnation of a world-renowned music event, the still going strong Glastonbury Festival, which continues to draw over 100,000 people a year to its southwest England location in Somerset. Going into Roeg’s film, I did have two overriding emotions: my love of Roeg’s body of work and what I would expect to be a brilliantly lensed film and my general disdain for the hypocrisy lying underneath the “free love and peace” concert events of the late 1960s/1970s. If that last statement seems unnecessarily caustic, you don’t need to look any further than the 1969 concert at Altamont that featured The Rolling Stones to get a picture of a group of people looking for flower power but instead getting open brutality. From members of Jefferson Airplane being assaulted on stage to the subsequent murder of an attendee, the violence at the Altamont Festival lead many to view that event as the definite cultural end of the peace movement that started in the 1960s.

The film does begin positively with the bassist of Kingdom Come wishing Arthur Brown a happy birthday onstage, a lovely moment for the artist whom many consider one of the pioneers of shock rock. Shortly thereafter, the event’s organizer Michael Eavis speaks directly into the camera as he explains the story of how he came up with the idea of producing the first concert, The Pilton Festival, as it was called before changing its name to the Glastonbury Fair and then finally to the Glastonbury Festival. You then see the masses of the hippy nation descend on the lush green of the fields with painted faces and instruments in hand whilst crews begin to construct the pyramid styled stage that would become the hallmark of the festival for years to come–a truly trippy sight indeed as its Egyptian-themed shape glows with a blue internal light.

As for the music, Terry Reid armed with a fantastic mixed race band of musicians (needs to be mentioned as the event itself is intensely Caucasian) pounds out a scorching version of “Dean” whilst the camera pans through the audience as the crowd gets freakier and more naked with each drum beat. There is some more random hippiness when suddenly the absolutely stunning sounds of Ashley Hutchings’ bass fuels a number played by his group, Fairport Convention. Still active to this day, Fairport Convention delivers one of the finest performances of the film. Once their number ends, though, it’s back to the drum circles and Big Bambu sized joints until an interesting meeting with a African-English Christian minister who explains his happiness with the peaceful attitude of the event. The minister’s positive report makes it fairly clear at this point that the event would not be mired in the same ugliness that had ended so many events in the states. In fact, the appearance and acceptance of a multitude of different faiths being practiced during the film clearly delineate Glastonbury from its American festival counterparts. You see a proper Anglican minister performing a small Sunday service for a crowd of somber ticket buyers whilst the Guru Maharaj speaks to thousands of flopsy mopsy dancing potential Hare Krishna recruits, which is soon followed by Arthur Brown as he ignites a few crosses for a theatrical Satantic ritual after a tune or two. Let’s just say that there is enough polytheism at the Glastonbury Fayre to make the Book of John burst into flames but at least the different tribes are all getting along.

The overall selection of music for the film surpassed my expectations, though I would’ve appreciated the omission of American folk singer Melanie and her crying and downright vicious vocal style. I imagine that some of the selections were made due to rights issues as other artists who performed at the festival such as David Bowie, Hawkwind, Brinsley Schwartz, and Pink Fairies did not make it into the final cut of the film. The final performance by Steve Winwood’s Traffic doing a an off-rhythm version of Winwood’s own hit with The Spencer Davis Group, “Gimme Some Lovin,” was a fitting end to the frenetic musical goings on at Glastonbury.

Glastonbury Fayre Trailer

One would expect that a Nicolas Roeg shot film would possess a dazzling visual style, and there are many moments that bear out Roeg’s daring camerawork, but the cinematography does vacillate between gorgeous and simply competent, which struck me as odd. I did a bit of research here and found out that although Roeg gets the credit as director, he walked away from the project after just a few days of shooting. The story goes that Roeg arrived with several cameramen in tow and shot a decent amount of film but was called away to work on his film Walkabout. An amateur cameraman, Peter Neal, gathered Roeg’s footage and blended it with the 16mm film shot by other amateurs. Though visually inconsistent, this randomness in style and quality does add to the raw energy of the event. Glastonbury Fayre stands as an important document in terms of seeing the genesis of an enduring music festival that scarcely resembles its humble origins now.

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