Wednesday, September 28, 2022

film review: REVIVAL69: The Concert That Rocked the World



Directed by Ron Chapman

Review by Allan Tong

ChinoKino score: A

"It was the end of the Beatles."

Documentarian D.A. Pennebaker describes the climax of the set performed by John Lennon, Yoko Ono and the Plastic Ono Band on September 13, 1969 at Toronto's Varsity Stadium. Lennon had ordered his bandmates, including Eric Clapton, to lean their guitars on their amps which sparked feedback that howled alongside Ono's avant-garde vocals. "It was such a fantastic ending," said the legendary Pennebaker who filmed the concert, because it knew it would be historic. After the Toronto show, Lennon would return to London and indeed break up the Beatles. A remarkable new documentary tells the chaotic, hilarious and pivotal story behind this one-day rock fest that nearly collapsed several times.

Pennebaker eventually released a film about the Toronto Rock 'n' Roll Revival, a fly-on-the-wall doc made in the same vein as his innovative films, Don't Look Back, about Bob Dylan's 1965 U.K. tour, and the revolutionary Monterey Pop Festival of 1967. However, director Ron Chapman has used Pennebaker's footage as the core of an entirely new film. Chapman has new footage, including intimate super-8 film, many insightful interviews, rare stills and smart animation to tell a thrilling story.

The tale began with two young concert promoters who organized a one-day festival to honour the pioneers of rock 'n' roll: Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Bo Diddley, Gene Vincent and Jerry Lee Lewis. But tickets didn't sell. Co-promoter John Brower, only 22 at the time, hired two notable L.A. DJ's to emcee the show, but that did nothing. Next, he booked the Doors (for $200,000 in today's money) by borrowing cash from a biker gang. But the Doors didn't move the needle either. With just days to go amid threats of the bikers collecting on their loan, one of the DJ's, Kim Fowley, urged the promoters to call John Lennon out of the blue and ask him to host.

After all, Lennon became a Beatle because of Berry et al. By chance, a Toronto rock journalist who was working for the Beatles, the renown Ritchie Yorke, vouched for Brower, so Lennon said yes. Miraculously, this exchange was captured on audiotape. However, nobody in Toronto believed Brower. Unbelievably, CHUM Radio kicked the promoters out of the station and even circulated rumours that Lennon would not show. (Shame on you, CHUM.) It took a Detroit DJ to get the word out and move tickets.

Other twists and turns abound in Revival 69, making the viewer ride a rollercoaster. The festival nearly collapsed a few times, but when it unfolded it was truly magical. Among the crowd of 20,000, Geddy Lee was a suburban longhair tripping on acid at the fest. Singer Claudia Barry was there to check out the black musicians. Both were blown away. Barry left knowing what she would do the rest of her life.

Chapman has done his homework. He interviewed Klaus Voorman and Alan White whom Lennon summoned to grab their bass and drums and meet him at the London airport. They convey the chaos, thrills and anxiety of rehearsing on the plane and racing to Varsity Stadium. Several other musicians on the bill recall that gig, namely Alice Cooper. His band were nobodies at the time, but they left Toronto as legends (Google "Alice Cooper chicken Toronto"). "We were an affront to everybody. We were the future."

Robbie Krieger of the Doors recalls headlining the festival, but remembers Jim Morrison being in awe of the the 1950s legends on stage, including Chuck Berry. Sadly, Mr. Mojo Rising balked at appearing on camera, so there is no footage of the Doors. Elsewhere, camerawoman Molly Davis recalls filming John and Yoko's limo as 80 bikers escorted it from the Toronto airport to Varsity Stadium (the head biker had a crush on her). Then there's the godfather of American rock criticism, Robert Christgau, who largely narrates the film by offering historic context and first-hand observations that are right on the money. Interviews by Lennon assistants, local musicians and other crew members contribute to a parade of colourful anecdotes.

The icing on the cake is animation by Mathew den Boer. It vividly presents the John and Yoko story which perfectly matches the crystal-clear audio recordings of their actual call with Brower. That audio is a highlight of the film.

REVIVAL69 wisely does not to focus too much on Lennon. Instead, it strikes a fine balance in telling the stories of all the musicians and characters behind the scenes. The film is a fine addition to the canon of rock docs, because it cements the significance of the 1969 Toronto Rock 'n' Roll Revival as a pivotal chapter of rock history. It marked the end of The Beatles and the 1960s and heralded the 1970s. REVIVAL69 should be held in the same regard as Woodstock and Gimme Shelter.

REVIVAL69 is currently playing film festivals. The next screening is in Oshawa at the Durham Region International Film Festival on Saturday, October 1.

Thursday, September 22, 2022

film review: Eternal Spring


Directed by Jason Loftus

Review by Allan Tong

ChinoKino score: A

You've seen or heard of the Falun Gong, those folks who stand still on street corners with their hands raised and eyes closed as they meditate. This stunning animated doc explains who they are and why they are cruelly persecuted by China's government.

Acclaimed comic book artist Daxiong (Star Wars, Superman, Justice League of America) practised Falun Gong in the Chinese town of Changchun which gave birth to him and this spiritual movement numbering in the millions. In 1999, China's authoritarian government became alarmed with FG's popularity and started jailing and torturing practitioners as well as burning their books. However, Daxiong didn't flee China until something happened in March 2002.

What happened was a small band of FG practitioners climbed some telephone pulls, literally cut a live news broadcast and patched their own video. That video showed the Chinese public that Falun Gong is not evil as the state-owned news kept saying, but is healthy and harmless. Sadly, the police hunted down the rebels. Many were tortured, some recanted and others died.

Eternal Spring (English for Changchun) startles the viewer from the opening frame, portraying China c.2002 in startling immediacy through lifelike animation. The images just grab you. The film cuts back and forth between contemporary interviews on camera of Daxiong, now living in Toronto, and surviving members of the rebel group who now reside in South Korea and the New York City area. To hear them tell their stories is moving. To see them portrayed in 2002 via animation executing the hijacking is nerve-wracking. To witness their imprisonment, also animated, is harrowing. Shining through this horror are the memories, defiance and hope of Daxiong.

Eternal Spring will screen theatrically starting September 23 in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal. Check local listings for details.