Thursday, May 4, 2017

Real to Reel: In Conversation with Documentarian Tony Palmer

Filmmaker Tony Palmer is the recipient of the 2017 Outstanding Achievement Award at Toronto's Hot Docs festival.

Legendary British documentarian Tony Palmer is the recipient of the 2017 Outstanding Achievement Award being handed out tomorrow, May 5, at Toronto’s Hot Docs Festival, and for good reason. Born in 1941 and the creator of more than 100 masterfully crafted arts films ranging from The Beatles and Cream to Igor Stravinsky, Richard Wagner and Ralph Vaughan Williams, Palmer is a director/editor as prolific as he is gifted and brazenly insightful. A critic once said of him that he is the poet of documentary filmmaking, and it is an apt description. His work is magnificent, poignant and honest. Through showing and not telling, it preoccupies itself with the stories of individual performing artists and the times in which they lived. Palmer, who has many accolades to his credit, including 12 Gold Medals from the New York Film Festival, draws a direct connection between environment and art making. It is what sets his movies about culture far above the mainstream.

This week, Toronto audiences can see for themselves why he is a giant in the field. Besides honouring his more than fifty years as a celebrated filmmaker, Hot Docs is showcasing a curated retrospective of Palmer’s extraordinary body of work, selected by programmer Michael McNamara and screening at TIFF Bell Lightbox until Sunday. Titles include Margot, Palmer’s 2005 searing analysis of the life of famed English ballerina Margot Fonteyn (Sunday May 7), Bird on a Wire, a behind-the-scenes look at Leonard Cohen on tour in 1973 which only now is getting theatrical release after being lost for more than four decades (Friday May 5 and Saturday May 6) and All My Loving (1968), Palmer’s groundbreaking BBC series on pop music (which John Lennon personally requested he make) featuring Eric Clapton, Eric Burdon, Jimi Hendrix and others against the backdrop of the Vietnam War and other explosive political events rocking the 1960s (Friday May 5).

In Toronto this week, and away from the home he shares in Cornwall with his Italian-born wife, a calligrapher, and their three school-age children, Palmer is introducing his films and, post-screenings, is signing copies of his work on DVD, among them The Beatles and World War II, his brilliant anti-war film, set to iconic Beatles songs as re-recorded by the likes of Tina Turner, Elton John and Jeff Lynne, just released last year after languishing in the vaults since the 1970s (when it was released as All This and World War II). It screened at Hot Docs on Wednesday, for one blistering showing only.

In advance of Wednesday’s screening, Palmer took time out for coffee and a chat touching on his early days as music critic for The Observer, his apprenticeship with Ken Russell and why Frank Zappa remains the bane of his existence. Here’s an edited version of that conversation:

dk: I have spent the morning reading your fascinating book, Charles II: Portrait of an Age, and most of the week screening copies of your brilliant documentaries on Leonard Cohen, Margot Fonteyn and, not seen at the festival but I couldn’t help myself, The Salzburg Festival. I still have many more to look at. It is indeed an honour to meet you.

tp: Well, I am very flattered that you would watch my films but really aren’t you a glutton for punishment? But now that you’ve done it, Margot and The Salzburg Festival have something in common, you know. Do you know what?

dk: Tell me.

Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn in Swan Lake, 1963
tp: When I did the Margot film I received a letter from the boss of Covent Garden – because you’ve seen the film you know what it’s about – saying we think it’s a good idea that you don’t come back to Covent Garden at any time in the near future. They were absolutely outraged.

dk: Because you told the truth?

tp: As you know, what the film is about is how this woman was used and abused from the age of 13 and 14, right to her dying day. And I thought that was unforgivable. I knew her quite well, and I knew some of the story but not all of the story. It’s the reason I began to explore the subject.

dk: And it’s connection to The Salzburg Festival film?

tp: As you’ve seen the film you know that the Salzburg Festival was set up at the end of the First World War when the Austro-Hungarian Empire had collapsed, and when Max Reinhardt, a Jew, together with his sidekick, some composer chap called Strauss, thought they had better do something which identifies Austria. You know, a wave of the hand that says Austria is still here. Then of course there’s the Nazi period. To this day, it staggers me that Salzburg is almost the most anti-Semitic town in all of Europe. But I knew only one thing for certain before I started making it and that is in 1945 Salzburg is quite heavily bombed and there were over 100,000 refugees there, and yet, two months later, there’s a festival. How the hell did that happen? To which the answer is, as you’ve seen the film, and you know, the Russians arrived in January and brought with them very quickly thereafter every great orchestra and conductor and soloists by order to say, Hello! We’re Russians! We’re frightfully cultured. Meanwhile, the Americans are coming in down the road and they’re, well fuck that. Anything they can do we can do better. And the CIA, whatever it was called then, they paid for the Salzburg Festival in 1945, ’46, ’47 and a bit of ‘48 as a purely political piece of propaganda. So at the three major stages of the Salzburg Festival – First World War, Nazi period, Second World War – it was an act of political will. If you take the view, as I do, that all art is political that’s entirely justifiable. But it needs to be said. But, as a result of that film, I am banned again. So I am banned from Salzburg, banned from Covent Garden. That’s what the two films have in common. Apart from both being really long.

dk: You say that all art is political?

tp: Yes, I think it is. With a small p. It’s about something. There are two views of art. There are some artists like Stravinsky, and I think he came to regret it, who said that music means only itself. It’s just notes on a page. Then there are others who argue the opposite: that every note, every stroke of the brush, is about something. It’s about them. It’s about their reaction to the world, it’s about the world in which they find themselves. It’s about the political situation. You can’t look at Guernica and say, oh, Picasso was just experimenting with forms. Obviously, I take the second view. Having made a film abut Shostakovich, I can say that’s the whole point. If you want to know what Russia was like in the 1930s and 40s and 50s under Stalin, under Communism, then then you listen to Shostakovich. I mean it’s the most eloquent description that we have. You write a poem that says Stalin is a bad man, then he can read that and, bang, you are dead. But if a tune says it, it’s awfully hard to prove. And that’s exactly what Shostakovich was doing, over and over and over again, at the risk of himself being annihilated and being taken away and shot. 

dk: These are so-called high art films. But your reputation over here is more …

tp: I don’t have a reputation. Don’t exaggerate. No one’s heard of me.

dk: Not true. You are perhaps more well known for your rock films than the ballet or classical music films, even though you’ve done so many more of these.

tp: Yes, it’s the rock films.

A scene from Tony Palmer and Frank Zappa's 200 Motels.

dk: Like 200 Motels, for instance. 

tp: Don’t tell me about that. It’s the worst film I’ve done.

dk: Why do you say that?

tp: I sometimes introduce it by saying "I don’t know you are here to watch the worse film in the entire history of the universe." Haven’t you got anything better to do? Awww …, they all go. But it drives me crazy.

dk: How so?

tp: In 2013, and this is what gets me, it’s the 100th anniversary of The Rite of Spring. Now, it so happens that I knew Stravinsky and I’ve come to represent the Stravinsky family at various things because they don’t want to go. All they are interested in is collecting the money. I’m sure you won’t quote me saying that. Anyway. I think it started off at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, a very interesting idea for a concert. The first half would be bits and pieces of Stravinsky – his ‘hot’ 10. The second half would be me whinging on for about 20 minutes about Stravinsky, and about the background to the Rite of Spring. I’d also show a bit of my Stravinsky film, which I think you haven’t seen, which gives some of the historical background to the ballet and score. We made that film [1982’s Once, at a Border…] at the behest of Mrs. Stravinsky; we actually interviewed the last two people alive who had actually danced 
in Le Sacre du printemps [The Rite of Spring]. They were very old. A bit like I feel now. So, 20 minutes of me whinging on, and then the orchestra would perform Rite of Spring. That escalated to two other symphony organizations: ‘Oh, if you’re going to do that one, why don’t you come and do one for us?’ Which was alright. Then, not quite at the last minute, I suddenly got a request from the UCLA Music Department, which is a very prestigious music department. ‘Well, if you are coming, would you like to come and give a lecture about more or less the same thing?’ I couldn’t resist that. So, for 50 minutes I talked about music under Stalin, basically: Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Khatcaturian, and Stravinsky, and their reaction to Stravinsky, oh and Rachmaninoff too of course, about whom I had also made a film. So, I talked about this for 50 minutes to these frightfully intense and serious looking students. There must have been between 300 and 400 of them, all busy making notes. At the end, the interlocutor looked at me and said, ‘Thank you very much,’ and then looked at the audience and said, ‘Would anyone like to ask Mr. Palmer a question?’ A hand goes straight up. ‘Yes sir. What’s your question?’ ‘What was Frank Zappa like?’ So that’s why I get pissed off about it. It’s a pretty terrible film. But I know it’s got this huge cult following, which is utterly mysterious to me. 

dk: You are clearly playing to the wrong audience. You need one that would respect your vast intellect.

tp: There you go exaggerating again. I tell you what I think, and I was having a pretty furious argument with someone about this last night. It’s mind boggling the films they’ve got here, sadly most of which – and its got nothing to do with the quality, of course – will never get on to television.

dk: Why not?

tp: It’s easy to say, oh well, the landscape has changed. But the problem is more that you now cannot make a serious film about the arts unless you’ve got some brainless bimbo introducing it. That in the end is insulting to the audience, because it is saying the audience is so stupid, it can’t follow what this argument is about, whatever argument the film is making, unless you are having your hand held. 

dk: You’ve always resisted that, haven’t you?

tp: With the single exception of the first film I ever made, I’ve never ever used a narrator, let alone a presenter. Not even the Leonard Cohen film – Bird on a Wire  had a narrator. I was just telling someone about this the other day. Before making that film, we each, quite jokingly, had conditions for each other. And one of Leonard’s was he didn’t want someone to introduce the film, or narrate the film, or explain why he is such an important singer. His other condition was, ‘Make it absolutely plain that I am not a singer of happy little love songs. I’m political.’ Mine was unfettered access. But going back to bimbos. Sorry.

A scene from Tony Palmer's Bird on a Wire (1974).

dk: Go ahead.

tp: About a year and half ago now, the telephone rang. ‘Hello, this is the BBC.’ I immediately stood to attention. ‘The BBC is going to make the definitive film about Margot Fonteyn,’ they continued. It did vaguely cross my mind, well, I think I did that a few years ago. But never mind. I will be very polite and I won’t say anything. So, I said, ‘How can I help?’ And they said, ‘Could you send us a list of all the archive you used, and, more importantly, where you got it from. So, I said, ‘No problem at all. I will set up this afternoon. It will come with an invoice for 10,000 quid plus V.A.T.’ Click went the phone. I never heard from them again. Then they went and made the film. Now it was introduced by a ballet dancer, a very nice one I am told although I have never seen her dance, Darcey Bussell. After 10 minutes, I was taking notes, I counted about 30 factual mistakes, and after that I lost the will to live. And the most insulting thing of all is Darcey Bussell stands in front of this little plaque at the end and says that’s where Dame Margot is buried. It isn’t where she is buried. You saw the film. You know. And I just thought that was an outrage. There was no attempt to understand what happened to her, really. There was no attempt to understand what the real relationship was with Rudolf Nureyev or that gangster Arias, let alone Constant Lambert. I mean Constant Lambert wasn’t even mentioned in the BBC film at all. If, at the time, you are 16 and you’ve had two abortions by the music director of the Royal Ballet that’s going to weigh heavily upon you in terms of your psyche. That’s rather important, I would think.

dk: Is there a unifying thread in the films you make?

tp: Somebody asked me, only last week actually, ‘You’ve made films about John Lennon and Stravinsky, what have they got in common?’ Well, I think you would find that most of the people I make films about – I should put that in past tense; I am too old to want to bother anymore – are people who have courage. Whether that’s psychological courage, physical courage. I mean Margot once said to me, I am standing on the side of the stage. I am touring. I am in a theatre I have never been in before. There’s a wooden floor. I hope to God it’s been swept and I hope to God there’s not a nail sticking out because when I make my first leap and I bounce off that nail, my career is over. So, physical courage, psychological courage, artistic courage, inevitably. And those people are very few and far between.

dk: Who are the ones you missed?

tp: Oh, there are zillions.

dk: Tell me even just one.

tp: Well, and I only say because we made this series, All You Need is Love, which Michael McNamara has written in the Hot Docs program changed people’s perceptions of pop music – but I think he’s exaggerating. But when it was finished, I suddenly got a call from somebody representing Louis Armstrong. So, I went to meet him, and I spent an hour or so with him, and the plot was hatched to make a film about him. But I said, ‘I’ve got to go back and edit this huge series, and it will take me three or four months but, may I came back again?’ ‘Yes,’ he says in that Louis Armstrong gruff way. And then he died. So that was a cock-up.

dk: And another?

tp: Leni Riefenstahl. That was another cock-up.

dk: There was a 1993 documentary about her. It debuted here, at the Toronto International Film Festival. I saw it. Completely fascinating.

tp: That film was the film I was supposed to make. 

dk: What happened?

tp: Well, I spent four or five days with her, and although she was 98, and was endlessly feeding me cream cakes, she was, present company excepted, the sexiest woman I think I’ve ever met. I mean, I thought, thank God I’m sitting behind the table. I’m keeping my hands in my pockets! She was absolutely, sexually, irresistible! Even at age 98. So you could see the fascination. We agreed that I was going to make that film. We brought the idea back to England and every single British broadcaster turned it down, because of who she was. Every single one. And I was in despair. I didn’t tell her. I just kept putting it off, and putting it off. But I think she got the message. So then it was made independently.

dk: Anyone from the pop world?

tp: Well, I haven’t had anything to do with the pop world since 1976. But I had gotten to know Eric Clapton very well. And he asked me to film Cream’s farewell concert. The original plan was do the farewell concert and then we’ll make a film with Jack [Bruce, the bassist], a film with Ginger [Baker, Cream’s founder and drummer], and a film with Eric. The first one we did was with Jack because Jack’s story was fascinating. Again, it comes down to courage. I mean, his father was a communist shop steward, and he, Jack, was born in the Gorbals, in Glasgow, one of the most terrible slums imaginable. The [1971] film is called, Rope Ladder to the Moon. And he, just through his skill, got himself into the Royal Scottish Academy of Music to learn the cello. He was a very good cellist. He then learned double bass and then bass guitar, and the rest is history. He finished up, after Cream, buying an island. So all the way from communist shop steward to buying an island in Scotland, that’s quite something. That’s quite a story.

dk: What about Ginger Baker?

tp: Ginger wanted to go across the Sahara to start this studio in Lagos. He really was the very fist person to realize the rich heritage of African music

Cream: Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce

dk: Is that the same studio Paul McCartney used when making Band on the Run

tp: Yes. That studio was started by Ginger. And I said, ‘How are we going to get there? [Imitates Ginger Baker:] ‘We’re gonna fuggin’ droive therah.’ I said, ‘Oh hold on there Ginger we’ve got a couple of problems.’ ‘Wot fuggin’ problems?’ ‘There’s something called the Mediterranean.’ ‘We’ll gedda fuggin’ boat.’ ‘Then there’s something called the Sahara Desert.’ ‘Oi, we’ll just drive across the fuggin’ Sahara.’ Dear oh dear oh dear. Then the third one was going to be with Eric, and by the time we got around to that, Eric was so high on heroin, it was awful. I dutifully turned up to discuss what we were going to do, and it was clear we couldn’t do anything. I felt it would have been an insult to such a wonderful musician, and such a nice bloke, actually. But when we did All You Need is Love, he then kept his word, and here’s quite a large section that’s devoted to Eric and what he was then doing. And he, of course, really spilled the beans on Cream. He said it was dishonest music. That is why he wanted to leave. But that’s not entirely true. It might have been dishonest music. But it was music like music unlike any I had ever heard.

dk: You’ve been able to get startling revelations out of people. But you’ve also kept some secrets. I understand you enjoyed a rich correspondence with John Lennon, for instance, but have never and will never divulge the contents of his letters with anyone. Could you talk about that?

tp: Well, you’ve seen Bird on a Wire. What is going on in the course of making Bird on a Wire is the trust between Leonard and me. And you’ve read about the problems that happened?

dk: Yes. [Palmer gave Cohen his first edit of the film, his only copy, after Cohen expressed reservations. But Cohen messed with it, and the film was thought lost until someone by chance found in a Hollywood warehouse cans of film, the outtakes, which Palmer reconstructed into a new film released on DVD in 2010.]

tp: The reason I gave him the material was because there was an absolute trust between him and me. And there was no way I was going to betray that. I think that’s what it comes down to in the end. These people for reasons of vanity or stupidity or whatever have decided to trust me, and I’m not going to betray that, at all. So it’s not, in the case of John Lennon, something scandalous in the letters. Not particularly scandalous. There are some quite funny moments. I was reading them the other day, actually.

dk: Would you think to share them with Mark Lewisohn, who is writing the definitive biography of The Beatles right now?

tp: No. Not really. Not any more than the stuff that Benjamin Britten told me.

dk: Some things will go into the grave?

tp: They won’t go into the grave. I have things written down. They will be kept.

dk: Your connection with Lennon goes back to 1963. You met at Cambridge where you were president of the Marlowe Society.

tp: Yes, we actually sat down and figured that out. It was October 1963.

dk: And how did you get involved in the Marlowe Society?

tp: I am a grammar school boy and I was one of three at Cambridge out of class of 110. In my year, one of the other grammar school boys was Trevor Nunn. He was president of the Marlowe Society and when he went off to run the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry he engineered me taking over.

Ringo Starr, interviewed by Tony Palmer for All My Loving (1968).

dk: From there did you go directly to becoming music critic for The Observer newspaper in London? 

tp: No. I stated writing for a literary journal, now gone, called The London Magazine. I didn’t write on musical subjects at all, really. Except there was one piece I did on this new record called Sgt. Pepper’s which I quite liked, and then came the call: ‘We’d like more of these please.’

dk: Your review of the White Album, published in The Observer in 1968, is an early piece of rock criticism that is still widely quoted. You provided fresh insights from the start.

tp: I said at the time that Lennon and McCartney were the greatest songwriters since Schubert. It was a fair comparison. Both were writing what was considered disposable music and both have written music that has lasted. But when I said that so many wrote in saying they were cancelling their subscriptions. How could I even put Schubert and the Beatles in the same sentence? But I was comparing two different cultures, both of high quality. And while people were outraged today there are many people writing long essays about the Beatles in just the same manner.

dk: Did you become a filmmaker after doing criticism?

tp: I did both at the same time.

dk: What was your apprenticeship with Ken Russell like? You worked with him first in 1966, on his BBC film, Isadora, about the great modern dance pioneer, Isadora Duncan.

tp: Oh, we did that film on the cheap, about 13,000 quid. Money wasn’t part of the exercise so we had to be creative. I came up with the idea of filming in Dartmoor, near Devon, as a stand in for the Russian Steppes. And then forgot all about fog. We had to wait it out. If you look closely, you will see a chauffeured car driven by Ken Russell with an impresario in the backseat, who is me. It was great fun.

dk: How many films have you made now?

tp: I think it’s 121 now. I only know that because of the University of Kansas. I’m a source of study.

dk: Ah, so you are a course?

tp: I’m a course. I can’t believe it.

dk: Do you go to lecture?

tp: Yes, I have done. And they’re very nice. It’s not only the University of Kansas. There are several of them now. And I’m just bemused that they take it all so seriously. And I think that’s the secret of my enormous success. Which is, in the end, I don’t really take it very seriously. The subject matter is serious, and I will do my very, very best to make it really work. But in the end, that’s not why you do it. No. It is why you do it. You can be very serious about what you do. But you need to have fun. It’s the joy of doing it. The joy of imparting to as many people as possible the same thing you feel passionate about. And, as you know, you need to be thoroughly prepared, and confident about what you are doing, and pray to God it technically all works out. It’s the joy of being able to find a way to express the passion that you feel about something. That is the modus vivendi. That’s why I do it

– Deirdre Kelly is a Toronto-based journalist, author and internationally recognized dance critic. She writes for Dance Magazine in New York and the Dance Gazette in London, and is a contributor to the International Dictionary of Ballet (St. James Press). A staff writer at The Globe and Mail for 32 years, she was her newspaper's award-winning dance critic from 1985 until 2001 before transitioning to the Style section as the fashion reporter. She has also served as the paper's rock critic and as an investigative reporter in the visual arts with a focus on art crime. The best-selling author of Paris Times Eight and Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, she writes on dance, theatre, the visual arts and fashion for Critics At Large.

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