Festival Criterion Collection Blu-ray Review

The camera pans across a field of folding chairs, all aimed at a center stage. In a couple of days, dozens of performers will take the stage. In the meantime, there are final touches and mic checks. Then, there is a quick cut, and thousands of people are running (or stroll) towards the seats. It’s a crowd of young individuals in buttoned shirts, tied cardigans, loose blazers and tight turtlenecks. Some carry books, some chomp bubblegum. On the soundtrack, Peter, Paul and Mary offer a traditional folk song. Woodstock this is not.


The Newport Folk Festival was founded in 1959, with notables like Pete Seeger and Earl Scruggs on the bill. In the immediate years that followed, it became a friend of the Civil Rights Movement and hosted a blossoming Bob Dylan. This was all before what might be considered its peak, the four-year span covered in Murray Lerner’s 1967 documentary FESTIVAL.

FESTIVAL captures several key acts that performed during this stretch from 1963 to 1966. At different times one can hear the words of Dylan, Baez, Johnny Cash, Donovan and Howlin’ Wolf. And then there are the little-known acts, like Jim Kweskin and the Jug Band, Tex Logan and the Lilly Bros. and Buffy Sainte-Marie. (The latter batch of names may be familiar to the well-versed of folk music history, but will likely be lost on the casual viewer.) The standout of any of the performances–and perhaps one of the top found in any music documentary–is the infamous set in which Dylan went electric in 1965, offering his most unique spin on “Maggie’s Farm” and more. It’s remarkable to witness, a yanking of the viewer’s breath right out of their body.


In between performances, there are brief comments on what folk music represents, why it’s important and why the musicians perform it. It’s the backbone of the film, serving in a way to link the lyrics reaching the festivalgoers. These are not people out to bop to the “drivel” of pop music; they love and admire not just the musicians, but what they have to say and what they represent.


FESTIVAL is something of a time capsule, much like D.A. Pennebaker’s MONTEREY POP and the epic WOODSTOCK. All three (released within just over two years of each other) cover their intended ground and work in their own right. Where FESTIVAL stumbles most is in how much it tries to shove in. While it’s never dull to watch performers like Baez, Cash and Donovan on stage, it’s laughable to be asked to sit through the Blue Ridge Mountain Dancers without thinking of a backyard hoedown.


Still, director Murray Lerner (whose later music-centric documentaries would include 1980’s FROM MAO TO MOZART: ISAAC STERN IN CHINA, which won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, and 2007’s AMAZING JOURNEY: THE STORY OF THE WHO) has done a deed for music lovers, presenting a rather beautiful film that captures a specific culture at a specific time. Without it, a significant chunk of music history lacks the highlight it needs; without FESTIVAL, there is a gap in the subgenre of music doc.


Video: 1.33:1 in 1080p with MPEG-4 AVC codec. “This new digital transfer was created in 2K resolution on a Lasergraphics Director film scanner from the 16 mm original camera negative and was approved by director Murray Lerner. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, and warps were manually removed using MTI Film’s DRS, while Digital Vision’s Phoenix was used for jitter, flicker, small dirt, grain, and noise management.”

FESTIVAL looks stunning in high-definition, with excellent details and strong contrast for the duration.

Audio: English Mono. “The monaural soundtrack, also approved by Lerner, was reconstructed and remastered primarily from high-resolution transfers of the original quarter-inch magnetic concert and field recordings, combined with the 35 mm, three-track DME (dialogue, music, and effects) magnetic soundtrack. This process effectively removed three generations of transfers, limiting, and distortion, allowing viewers to hear the original masters recorded at the festival. Clicks, thumps, hiss, hum, and crackle were manually removed using Pro Tools HD and iZotope RX.”

Considering the film is now 50 years old, viewers should be extremely excited to hear just how crisp and fresh the music in FESTIVAL sounds. Whether the delicate vocals of Joan Baez or the shocking electrics of Dylan’s infamous set, the sound is without flaw, one of the finest transfers offered on a music doc Blu-ray.

Making “Festival” (26:33): Director Murray Lerner, associate editor Alan Heim and assistant editor Gordon Quinn reflect on the “historic artifact” that is FESTIVAL.

When We Played Newport (30:34) examines the American folk music movement of the time. Included are FESTIVAL outtakes and numerous interviews with Lerner, as well as musicians such as Joan Baez, Pete Seeger and more.

Unreleased Performances (20:52): Housed here are performances from John Lee Hooker in 1963, Tom Paxton in 1964, Elizabeth Cotten in 1964, Johnny Cash in 1964, Clarence Ashley in 1963 and Odetta in 1964.


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