The 1967 concert film “Festival!,” which documented the Newport Folk Festival from 1963-1966, has finally made the jump to DVD via Eagle Rock. Featuring performances by Joan Baez, Peter, Paul & Mary, Donovan and Johnny Cash, the film is best known for its footage of Bob Dylan’s first-ever “electric” set, performed with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band.
“I got the idea because I was interested in folk music for many years, and then I saw something new happening — where it became widely accepted, widely commercialized,” director Murray Lerner tells Billboard.com of his idea for the film. “It was kind of the beginning of the youth/cultural revolution, I guess you could call it, of the ’60s — using folk music to express itself, and then changing the music to rewrite it, like Dylan did.”
The aforementioned Dylan set is represented by a crackling rendition of “Maggie’s Farm.” And while most recollections over the years describe Dylan being met with hostility from the crowd, Lerner recalls it was the fellow performers who took Dylan’s decision the worst.
“Pete Seeger said he was upset because of the sound quality,” Lerner says. “Peter Yarrow [of Peter, Paul & Mary] was worried — I have other scenes of Peter where he’s all rattled and asked the crowd to call Bobby back to play a ‘normal’ set. I think he was worried that it was something so new that crowd didn’t get it. They probably didn’t get it; I think they were stunned.”
Although brief, a snippet of a surprisingly laid back performance of “I Walk the Line” by Johnny Cash is another standout. “I thought [Cash] was great,” Lerner says. “He seemed a little nervous before he went on, but when he went on, I thought he was absolutely as smooth as butter and fabulous.”
Fans hoping to see more footage from the festivals may soon be in luck, according to Lerner. “There will be other things that come out,” he says, without revealing specifics. “I have a lot of other stuff. Maybe next year. And there’s other Dylan material that is really unusual. Almost everyone has more material. We’re going to be doing a number of things with it.”
A rare theatrical screening of ‘Festival!’ will be held Nov. 15 at Makor in New York. The evening will also play host to a panel discussion, featuring Lerner, Newport Folk Festival founder George Wein and original performer Jim Kweskin, among others.