Message to Love — The Isle of Wight Festival is a documentary of the 1970 rock festival released on DVD in 1997. It is a remarkable, if revolting, portrayal of the “Woodstock Nation.” It shows what the Hippies were all about: drugs, socialism and nihilism.
Apart from the music, the film centers on the Hippies who came to the Isle of Wight without enough money to buy a ticket to the festival, apparently thinking they should be let in for free, and were left outside the fences. These longhairs fought like a barbarian horde against policemen with dogs until finally on Sunday they tore down the fence and got in for free. One promoter says 600,000 people came to the Isle, but only 60,000 paid for tickets. At one point a Hippie screams in rage against capitalist pigs as he kicks a fence.
Aside from the Hippie subplot, what about the music? The film has an array of great Classic Rock bands: Jimi Hendrix and the Band of Gypsies, the Who, Jethro Tull, Ten Years After, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Taste (Rory Gallagher), the Moody Blues and the Doors. There is also an outstanding contingent of folk singers: Joan Baez, Donovan, Leonard Cohen, Kris Kristofferson and Joni Mitchell. Miles Davis represents the jazz sound and Tiny Tim was there, however you categorize him.
Jimi Hendrix and Alvin Lee show off their guitar wizardry. It doesn’t get much cooler than Jim Morrison singing “The End” with a cigarette in his hand. Joni Mitchell is feminine and beautiful. Kristofferson looks pissed off at it all — or is he always like that? Leonard Cohen looks wounded and vulnerable as he sings “Suzanne.” Mostly they all look young and skinny.
Before his song Cohen says, “It’s good to be here alone in front of 600,000 people. It’s a large nation, but it’s still weak. It’s still very weak. It needs to get a lot stronger before it can claim a right to land.” Is this a vague exhortation to revolution? It’s always so hard to tell with poets.
As much as I admire many of the acts in this film, in the context of the Hippie filth and nihilism, they all come off diminished. The whole thing just seems squalid, amateurish and boring. If students in the far future use this film to discover what Rock’n’Roll was all about, they will be baffled as to how such a banal and uninspiring music style lasted so long.
One Hippie, sitting next to his dirt-streaked little boy and chewing on meat like a caveman, tells the camera he gives his child marijuana and LSD. That’s such a good idea.
The most remarkable thing about the movie is how the management was morally disarmed by the Hippies wanting something for nothing. Although the people who wanted in for free never gave a coherent argument as to why they shouldn’t pay, they asserted their right to get in with moral certainty. They wanted it and management had a duty to give it to them, period.
The promoters were uncertain and apologetic from the beginning. Hilariously, at one point a promoter explains to the crowd that they must charge admission because the artists won’t play unless they get paid first. The film then cuts to an unnamed musician chewing out this promoter for trying to foist the blame on the artists. But you know damn well that musician made sure he got his cut.
After the barbarians finally burst through the gates on Sunday and anarchy reigned, the promoter Ron Foulk, something of a drama queen, tried to patch things up with the crowd. He explained that money had never been the main reason for the event and he asked everyone to hold hands. He appealed to altruism by noting that he was poorer than they were because he still had to answer to creditors. He held his hands above his head in peace signs and got teary-eyed.
Management never had a chance. They were intellectually disarmed by conventional morality. The people wanted free music. What right did Ron Foulk have to line his pockets by exploiting these poor souls who just wanted to hear music and experience peace and love? It was obvious Foulk had never read Ayn Rand.
UPDATE: Slight revision.