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Our tribute to Tony Palmer

The film list for our tribute to the acclaimed British documentary filmmaker, one of the most influential authors in history
09/09/2015 IN-EDIT BEAT Staff
 
How to approach the filmography of Tony Palmer, the honoree at this year’s In-Edit festivals in Barcelona and Chile, and one of history’s most significant and influential authors of music documentaries? We’re talking about more than a hundred films. One hundred. This is the man who planned to be an academic, studying Moral Sciences at Cambridge University, but ended up working at the BBC with Ken Russell and making friends with John Lennon, who gave him a list of contacts that would forever change the relationship between television and music: CreamJimi HendrixPink FloydThe AnimalsFrank ZappaThe Who… they all starred in his early work as a director. His career would later lead him to recount the life and work of classical composers like WagnerStravinskyShostakovichPurcell or Rachmaninoff with a sensitivity that would earn him high praise as: "One of the great, and uncompromising, poets of television”.     
 
Throughout the coming weeks we’ll dig into his style and his filmography, so for now we’ll set aside the impressive list of bands, composers and performers he has studied and paid tribute to over five decades of tireless work (also as a writer and music journalist) and we’ll limit ourselves to listing the titles we’ve chosen for our tribute to the great Tony Palmer.
 
LEONARD COHEN: BIRD ON A WIRE (1974)
 
 
“An intimate and compelling view of a man who, despite the recent, rapturously received live tour, remains something of an enigmatic character. For the Cohen aficionado, this is a vital document and insight into the man. It's a film very much of its time, in the language spoken as much as the trousers and the pipes that Cohen's band like to smoke. It captures, like road films must, the funny, sad, high and low times of being on tour. Standouts are Cohen's humour and humility” –LUKE TURNER (The Quietus)
 
“I told them I wanted total access, no door closed. And I was in luck. It seemed Cohen was going to retire after the tour, the record company wasn't interested, so there were no company people around. It was just the band and our little film crew in the dressing room. Cohen singing ‘Bird on a Wire’ at that gig, tears streaming down his face – that's the Man” –TONY PALMER
 
THE WORLD OF LIBERACE (1972)
 
 
“It isn’t often that the entire credit for a marvelous documentary must go to the subject, but Liberace handed it to director Tony Palmer on a plate. Walter Valentino Liberace with his three homes, nine cars, and a priceless collection of antiques talked happily and admiringly about himself for an hour. I doubt if we saw the real Liberace, since it was simply another splendid performance. Who, though, could fail to make a good film when the man hogging the cameras could never be accused of just being merely infatuated with himself? Indeed no, with Liberace it’s undoubtedly the real thing” –FRANKIE McGOWAN (Night Watch)
 
“Steven Soderbergh's film about Liberace [Behind the Candelabra] is a great movie, and Michael Douglas gives a career-best performance. But that's not Liberace. Everyone knew he was gay, but he never minced like that. He'd walk across a room like anyone else. He'd look you dead in the eye. He was straight as a die. He was incredibly generous, though – they got that right. What they failed to capture was the man’s excessive wealth; Soderbergh certainly didn't have the budget for that." –TONY PALMER
 
GINGER BAKER IN AFRICA (1973)
 
 
“Ginger Baker wanted to set up a recording studio in Lagos, Nigeria. He decided also that it might be an invaluable musical experience if he traveled to Nigeria overland. This involved crossing the Sahara Desert. Crazy, but that was what was so endearing about the man and the musician. It fell to me (because of my relationship with Cream) to film his odyssey. And the music of Nigeria was a revelation; the music pulsated with reckless freedom, from the African talking-drummers of Oshogbo, to a visit to the eastern city of Calabar where Ginger’s friend (the then unknown) Fela Ransome-Kuti performed for us with devastating power. This film pays tribute to Baker’s indomitable spirit and to his extraordinary musicianship” –TONY PALMER
 
MARIA CALLAS: LA DIVINA (1987)
 
 
“Tony Palmer’s truly superb film brings Callas back to life in an uncannily vivid way. […] He uses the arias and their words to illustrate the state of Callas' life and her feelings, at each given time the effect is electrifying. [...] A deeply moving experience” –DAVID FINGELTON (Daily Express)
 
“Rather than show her as an opera-singer who is a fragile, damaged woman in deep trouble, I presented her as a fragile, damaged woman in deep trouble who is also an opera singer" –TONY PALMER
 
ALL MY LOVING (1968)
 
 
"There were all these great bands around, Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd, Cream, The Who, and they weren't getting any serious coverage. You could do Top of the Pops o Juke Box Jury – that was it. People like Hendrix didn't want to do those. John Lennon told me it was my duty to get them on to television. I wasn't much into that type of music then, but anyone could see how incredible Hendrix was. Television was just ignoring these people. I said, 'John, what can I do? I'm new at the BBC and I don't have an "in" with any of these bands' He said, 'I'll provide the introductions, you can do everything else" –TONY PALMER
 
“Palmer also layers in the social backdrop: the music was being played out against peace'n'love'ndrugs. . . but also the war in Vietnam, race riots in the US and friendly bobbies in Britain taking their batons to protesters. While this freewheeling, deliberately inconclusive and utterly fascinating doco is full of interesting comments from a time when the wheels of the world were turning in another direction, there is footage here which wil make you recoil in horror: seeing a Vietnamese man on fire – and he's not a self-immolating monk – is horrific. And no amount of Jimi playing 'Wild Thing' can change that” –GRAHAM REID (Elsewhere.co.nz)
 
ALL YOU NEED IS LOVE – THE BEATLES (1976) + ALL ALONG THE WATCHTOWER: SOUR ROCK (1977)
 
 
“[This is an episode from] a mammoth 17-part series on the history of popular music that begins in Africa before moving into ragtime, jazz, blues, swing and so forth. Rock'n'roll doesn't make an appearance until episode 13. […] On many levels, All You Need Is Love is a powerful brew. Palmer eschews straight narrative, and includes complete performances and extensive interviews rather than clips. […] All You Need Is Love is vast, riveting, rambling - a life's work, and you will applaud its daring” –BOB STANLEY (The Guardian)
 
“Tony Palmer's “All You Need Is Love" was hailed in its day and looks even better now, thanks to Palmer's blend of stock footage, electrifying performances and thoughtful narration.” –NOEL MURRAY (LA Times)
 
WIGAN CASINO (1977)
 
 
“The Mods first adopted soul music in the 1960s, but it was the northern soul devotees of the 1970s who expressed their passion for it most intensely. Eschewing alcohol for amphetamines, they brought a new repertoire of breathtakingly athletic movement and intricate footwork to the dancefloors of a post-industrial north. Tony Palmer’s documentary about northern soul’s most iconic venue shows its dancers in full flow, transcending the crushing grind of day to day life through spins, flips and backdrops in styles that were arguably a precursor to breakdancing of the 1980s” –IAN O'SULLIVAN (British Film Institute)
 
"I was auditioned by the youthful committee that ran the casino. This was their private world – they didn't really want it publicised. Yet they also wanted to show a joyful celebration of a kind of music and dancing. What I experienced there was mesmerising, it was packed and pitch dark, and this extraordinary dancing… […] My intention wasn't to eulogise the venue, but to illustrate the social milieu that produced it. Look at MTV or the Brits – what does that have to do with music? If popular music has value – and it does – it's because it comes from the streets and gives people a voice. It doesn't need a sponsor. That's the death of it" –TONY PALMER
 
MENUHIN – A FAMILY PORTRAIT (1990)
 
 
“A wonderful and emotionally charged biography of violinist Yehudi Menuhin. […] Tony Palmer has created something of a video biographical miracle, giving us step-by-something-painful-step the life of an artist from his triumphs as a pudgy 11-year-old prodigy to his world-famous stature. […] a fascinatingly detailed portrait of the growth of an artist” –RICK KOGAN (Chicago Tribune)
 
BENJAMIN BRITTEN AND HIS FESTIVAL (1967)
 
 
“A behind-the-scenes look at the Aldeburgh Festival and the opening by The Queen of the new concert hall at Snape. This superb film by Tony Palmer may well achieve the status of a classic, repeated again and again over the years. […] the brilliant editing (was) of the highest quality, making a natural partnership of music and picture” – SEAN DAY-LEWIS (The Daily Telegraph, 1967)
 
“This was my first film, which I inherited quite by chance. Britten was extremely reluctant to be filmed. Thanks to the influence of his trusted record producer John Culshaw and his friend Humphrey Burton, Britten agreed. I was hired as Humphrey Burton’s tea boy. The weekend before we were due to start filming, Humphrey got fired by the BBC because it had been leaked that he and others from the BBC were about to set up the first ITV station in London and this was seen as a terrible act of betrayal. Britten himself rang me and said he had heard the news, and would I like to come to tea and talk about it? Britten and [tenor] Peter Pears kept telling me not to worry. What I most remember, however, is the two of them giggling throughout the tea like silly schoolchildren. Years later, I asked Pears why he and Britten seemed to me to be having a giggling fit. He remembered very well: “You see, we never really wanted to make that film. Then Humphrey got fired, and we were left with you. And we guessed that you hadn’t the faintest notion how to set about making the film, so the result would be that we could do precisely what we wanted. How wrong we were. We both loved the film and were very proud to welcome you into our ‘family’”. –TONY PALMER
 
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