Jim, Jimi, & Joni
Culturally, if not chronologically, this festival, staged on the Isle of Wight (off the south coast of England) in August 1970, was the last of the great '60s rock festivals. The spiritual successor to Monterey and Woodstock, it featured many of the acts who had made those two shows their own: Hendrix, The Who, John Sebastian, Ten Years After, and Joan Baez were all recalled from Max Yasgur's farm to re-create the previous summer's heroics, while Joni Mitchell—who didn't play Woodstock, but wrote a song about it—came along to find out what she'd missed.
But the Isle of Wight also pinpointed the heroes of the new decade: ELP, Jethro Tull, Taste, and the Moody Blues. And if their performances didn't confirm the sense of a sudden musical sea change, then the events of the next 12 months would. Within a month of the festival, Jimi Hendrix was dead; within a year, The Doors' Jim Morrison would join him; and in between them was Janis Joplin. (Joplin's hit, "Me & Bobby McGee," was performed by its composer, Kris Kristofferson, at Isle of Wight, and brought the house down.)
The official festival film was released on VHS in 1995; the DVD version doesn't add much to what we've already seen, beyond the standard ease of accessing individual performances. The songs are still presented in edited form, and the direction is still more notable for its intentions than its accomplishments. The sound is an improvement on the video release, although it adds nothing to either the 2-CD audio set (which documents the same performances), or the CD that serves up the headlining Who's entire set. That said, it is certainly the equal of any other period live recording, and can hold its own among even today's state-of-the-art concert documents.
Jerky and raw, the movie itself documents a remarkable weekend rather than a string of remarkable performances; what makes it worthwhile is just how powerful some of the resultant juxtapositions are. The sequence in which ticketless fans break down the fences as the soundtrack kicks into one of The Doors' more apocalyptic renderings of "The End" foreshadows Coppola's more dramatic use of the same song in Apocalypse Now; later, concert promoter Rik Gunnell is moved to tears by the sight of a field full of concertgoers holding hands as a lone guitarist plays a haunting "Amazing Grace."
Of course, it's the music upon which Isle of Wight stands or falls, and, despite some cruel edits, overall it works well: Leonard Cohen in a raincoat singing a skeletal "Suzanne"; Emerson, Lake and Palmer exploding cannons and dismantling organs; Paul Rodgers and Free looking younger (and sounding louder) than anyone has a right to; and, of course, Jimi Hendrix, the ultimate showman, in incendiary form. These are the images that made the The Isle of Wight Festival a legend long before the film was finally released, and they're what confirm that status today.