Celebration at Big Sur attempts to do for the Northern California "non-profit" concert of 1969 approximately what Woodstock did for its larger Eastern counterpart. Celebration's producer, Carl Gottlieb, says that the difference between his film and Woodstock is the "...difference between a spectacular and a warm, intimate film." He would have been more appropriate in saying that the difference lay between a spectacular concert and a warm intimate concert. The size of the crowd ahd number of performers at Big Sur was dwarfish when compared to those of Woodstock. The concert at Big Sur, which featured Joan Baez, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Joni Mitchell, Dorothy Morrison and the Combs Sisters, John Sebastian and others, was held at the Esalen Institute, a far more civilized and conducive setting than Farmer Yasgur's Field.
These differences between size and volume of both concerts and settings made the Big Sur concert a far less dynamic subject than the Woodstock concert, at least on a superficial level. In order to filmically delineate the "energy" which the filmmakers of Celebration apparently felt distinguished the concert, they had to try to make a small event look "big" rather than a big event (such as Woodstock) look small (enough to watch in one sitting). Unfortunately, they did not succeed. Filmically, the concert at Big Sur, which by reputation was indeed intimate and enthusiastic, was extremely average.
This is largely because little to no dramatic structure was created in the editing of the film. The Woodstock film, which also obviously outdid Celebration in terms of expense accounts and numbers of technicians, presented a visual storyline, following Woodstock from its setting-up stages through the garbage removal after its end. Celebration, on the other hand, fails to utilize this device for involving the audience in the film. Celebration documents part of the concert rather than the entire concert, and thus much of that which constitutes its essence is lost in the translation. The audience is shown merely for effect (i.e. - end song, quick shot of crowd applauding). A couple of passer-bys comment on the beauty and vitality surrounding the concert, but the cameramen largely disregard both.
The only objective basis for judging a film is in terms of its technical efficiency. It is in this respect that Celebration suffers its greatest inadequacies.
Perhaps the most basic element in a film is The Quality Visual. This beast as we know it, characterized by the clear comprehensible picture, was not characteristic of Celebration. Camera focusing was often disregarded, featuring zooms which, while closing in on subjects, rendered them simultaneously indistinct. Granted, documentary footage is hard to collect because it cannot be re-shot. And if Baird Bryant and Johanna Demetrakas, the film's editors, had cut out poor footage, they would have had little more than a film short. Speed-blinding pans accompanied by poor focusing, however, are too much to tolerate even in a film of a mere 82 minutes' length.
Straight footage which might have otherwise been quite decent was often hindered by pseudo-artistic gimmickry. Coarsely-changing colours and badly matched gold tinting did not enhance Joni Mitchell's rendition of "Woodstock" (the song). And save us from the blatant film metaphor! As Joni sang, "...turning into butterflies above our nation", you can imagine what appeared on the screen. Perhaps the most offensive was the in-and-out zooming technique thrown in by an apparent veteran of TV's Shebang.
Such technical problems tend to aggravate Celebration at Big Sur's greatest failing, which is to inadequately serve its function as a documentary. First, the film fails to draw any lucid and consistent illustration of the event. Second, it gives the concert itself no appearance of continuity. Third, the cameramen too often fail to linger long enough upon the performer being featured, as, for example, upon Neil Young, who seems to be singing from another world. Fourth, bad shooting rendered that which was depicted difficult to look at.
What redeems Celebration at Big Sur are the performers themselves. If seeing David Crosby in a communal bath with John Sebastian and several other people doesn't excite you, then you'll at least enjoy seeing Steve Stills get into a fight with a spectator.
The most exciting performers are unintentional ones, ad-libbers, such as the police at the film's beginning who apparently didn't know that the camera and recorder were running. Also of interest are the painted teacher who'd been fired for being "too weird," and a friendly Stranger who sings his conversation.
If Celebration at Big Sur had achieved the aura of intimacy which its producer had hoped for, it might have been a far more enjoyable experience. As it stands as a film, it is stiff and presumptuous and probably missed a lot of what the Big Sur Experience was all about. Still, the music was basically clear and audible, the people, as always, were entertaining, the swimming pool was blue, and there was a nude scene. What more could you ask for?
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