Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Murray Lerner, who captured Bob Dylan defiantly going electric at the Newport Folk Festival and filmed Jimi Hendrix’s final concert performance, has died.
Lerner died Sunday at his home in New York City. He was 90.
The filmmaker preserved some of the critical turning points in pop culture and was so painstaking in his work that he spent nearly a quarter of a century completing a documentary on the 1970 Isle of Wight rock festival, a seminal event he believed marked the tipping point from the peace-and-love hippie fest that was Woodstock to a more corporate and cynical musical era.
But it was a different genre of music that earned Lerner an Oscar.
In 1979, as the icy relations between Beijing and the U.S. thawed, Lerner traveled to China with Isaac Stern and filmed as the acclaimed violinist met with music students and performed with what’s now the China National Symphony Orchestra.
The performance, and the selections of Mozart and Brahms the musicians played, was seen as a cultural breakthrough. Only a decade earlier, such Western music would have been banned.
“From Mao to Mozart: Isaac Stern in China” won the 1981 Oscar for best documentary feature.
In the early and mid ’60s, Lerner spent three years capturing performances at the Newport Folk Festival. He recorded Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, Odetta, Peter, Paul and Mary, and the other mainstays of the folk era. But it was Bob Dylan who captivated the young filmmaker.
The Rhode Island festival was a tradition-rooted and democratic event, built on acoustic performances and an understanding that the music — not the musician — would be the star. Everyone was paid the same and, in theory, everyone would be applauded the same.
Dylan, though, had a native charisma and an ever-growing catalog of songs that made him stand out. Festival organizers reportedly were uneasy with his growing celebrity.
When he strode onstage in 1965, plugged in his electric guitar and launched into “Maggie’s Farm” and then the newly written “Like a Rolling Stone,” the reaction was hostile. Some booed. Some taunted the singer.
“I think he was flustered, whether he says so or not,” Lerner said later.
Dylan walked off the stage and returned with his acoustic guitar, finishing his performance with “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” a haunting and venomous song that — on this night, at least — seemed directed squarely at the audience.
“It was a good end, I thought — because it had the surrealistic lyrical metaphors that characterized his change, but it was acoustic,” Lerner told the Nashville Scene in 2007.
Lerner’s end product, “Festival”, was nominated for an Oscar.
Decades later, Lerner returned to the outtakes of Dylan’s work at the folk festival — mingling with fans, rehearsing, performing — and cobbled together “The Other Side of the Mirror: Bob Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival.”
In a 2007 review, the New York Times called the film “a remarkably pure and powerful documentary, partly because it’s so simple.”
Over the years, Lerner extracted documentary after documentary about the musicians and rock groups that performed at the Isle of Wight — The Moody Blues, Leonard Cohen, The Who, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Miles Davis.
But it took him 25 years to complete and line up the financing for “Message to Love: The Isle of Wight Festival.” It was, Lerner said, the story of good music colliding with bad vibrations.
Fans smashed fences and heckled festival workers for charging admission. Security guards with German shepherds prowled the fenced-off area between the crowd and the stage. The festival emcee berated fans for their behavior, calling them “pigs.”
On stage, Baez bristled with anger, lashing out at the “stinking rotten world.” Joni Mitchell tearfully asked the audience to behave. Only Hendrix seemed to float above it all, putting on a performance that Lerner said was “one of the most overwhelming experiences I’ve ever had.” Hendrix, only 27, died weeks later.
A Los Angeles Times review in 1997 suggested the film ably documented the “fissure, class struggle and greed” that had replaced the vibe of Woodstock.
Lerner was born May 8, 1927, in Philadelphia. In addition to his work as a filmmaker, Lerner, a graduate of Harvard, taught at Yale, where he helped create a film studies program.
He is survived by his wife, Judith; a son, Noah; and two grandchildren.