Aug 9, 2012

Medicine Ball Caravan (1971)

Director: Francois Reichenbach
Writer: Christian Haren
Producer: Tom Donahue
Cinematographers: Serge Halsdorf, Christian Odasso, Jean-Michel Surel
Warner Brothers, 88min; color

B.B. King. Alice Cooper, Delaney and Bonnie, Doug Kershaw, The Youngbloods, David Peel and the Lower East Side, Stoneground w/ Sal Valentino

My next sentence is probably unique among any review of a rock and roll film.  You should probably read the book before seeing the movie.

It may be just as hard to see this 1971 Warner Brothers documentary, as it is to find Thomas King Forcade’s tell-all book, Caravan of Love and Money, which told what went on behind the scenes of the making of this film.  The Medicine Ball Caravan was a cross-country tour of 150 people, who would stop here and there to put on a rock and roll concert.  The whole point of the caravan, despite spreading peace love and good vibes on the way to their final destination (England- which is not shown in the movie), was to offer a counterpoint to Woodstock.  That 1969 festival is generally considered to be the signature event of the love generation, but still many felt that Woodstock was too commercial, especially once it became a franchise (with a record set and a movie), and did not give back to the counterculture which of course inspired the whole thing in the first place. Ironically, Warner Brothers, the same distributors of said record set and movie,  gave the green light to make this “anti-Woodstock”, which attempted to give an honest portrayal of what the love generation was really about.

Medicine Ball Caravan is unique among rockumentaries.  Monterey Pop, Wattstax and all the others would’ve happened even if the cameras weren’t rolling. Instead, the caravan was created for the camera.  In other words, it is a documentary in which fabrication is used to capture reality.  The end result however, is questionable in its truthfulness, as it features people who are way too conscious of the camera. Whether it’s cinema verité or reality TV, one fundamental is shared: the camera is too powerful a tool for people to ignore; it changes them- encourages them to be larger than life. Early on, we hear the Youngbloods do a rendition of the Beatles’ “Act Naturally” -a snarky aside to how all the hippies are supposed to be before the cameras.  (The song is even a mantra by some meditating longhairs).

Yet to understand all that subtext of the images between the musical acts, well, you have to read the book first.  For example, you find out that the supposedly candid moment of a hippie couple making love in the early morning is bogus because the man knew the camera was there, and his bravado was increased.  You also find out that the scene where everyone jumps in jello was a symbolic way of bringing all the people together.  Oh.  And perhaps most interesting, Sal Valentino, formerly of the Beau Brummels, is in a band called Stoneground, which is seen briefly in the movie, doing some Janis Joplin angst.   Thanks to the book, we are informed that this band is actually fictitious- it was formed solely for the movie, a house band for the caravan, and supposedly, their most inspired performances did not occur on film. 

What we get is a vague travelogue with musical numbers by B.B. King (doing a great “How Blue Can You Get”), Alice Cooper (before the horror show makeup, but still pretty wild), and finally, a bravura performance by East Side enfant terrible David Peel (the guy who released an album with the hilariously crass title “Have a Marijuana”), who provides the film some solely needed sparks. 

Otherwise, the movie’s drama is most potent in a sequence where the caravan happens upon a campus rife with protests of student radicals. The entourage is accused of exploiting their generation, whereas Peel counters that they don’t want this movie to be another Woodstock.  “The people we want to come are the shorthairs- long hairs stay away from this movie.”  This may be a naïve attempt at getting the establishment to understand the counterculture, but one can’t imagine anyone except a counterculture audience buying tickets for admission.

During this scene, someone offers the amazingly prophetic line: “We can’t get it together among ourselves, man”, which presages the self-destruction of the love generation.  If we are to believe what was written in Forcade’s account, the pretentious French director Francois Reichenbach always showed up too late to capture the authentic, unscripted moments on film, and had to ask people to recreate them.  And perhaps because the campus unrest was still in progress once the camera crew arrived, this sequence is the only one (other than the concert acts) that feels authentic.

For all of the filmmakers’ dissent towards Woodstock, this movie simply wouldn’t exist with it. It has the same structure, to say nothing of the same optical effects, as the filmmakers have no visual imagination of their own. So we see Doug Kershaw perform “Louisiana Man” in split screen, and Stoneground doing their thing with some acid-washed optical effects.-  they even employed the same editor to work on this movie (future Last Waltz director Martin Scorsese)! 

This is a dichotomy of a movie about the dichotomy of the love generation.  The filmmakers end up contradicting themselves just as much as their subject matter. Like the doomed generation captured on film, the people behind the camera can’t get it together amongst themselves either, man.

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