John Lennon plays at the Toronto Revival | Photon Films

Revival69: The Concert that Rocked the World Review – Toronto’s Ragtag Revue

Rollicking music doc fuelled by Pennebaker footage

7 mins read

Revival69: The Concert that Rocked the World
(Canada/France, 97 min.)
Dir. Ron Chapman

 

Was 1969 the year of the rock festival? Revival69: The Concert that Rocked the World energetically recaps the 1969 Toronto Rock and Roll Revival. When Woodstock went down in history and the Harlem Cultural Festival played in its shadow, the revival saw a pivotal moment of musical history unfold in Toronto’s Varsity Stadium. Directed by Ron Chapman (The Poet of Havana) and written by Phyllis Ellis (Category: Woman), Revival69 might sit in Summer of Soul‘s shadow the way the Harlem fest was obscured by Woodstock. But this look back at 1969 rollickingly revisits the days when Toronto knew how to rock out.

The doc features a who’s who of players to tell the story of how it all went down. Concert promoters John Brower and Ken Walker tell how they envisioned a grand day of stars and music. Somehow, they miraculously booked talents like Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bo Diddley, and Little Richard for a September date. They also worked with managers and wranglers, including Supermensch subject Shep Gordon, to land an upstart talent called Alice Cooper. (The latter also landed back-up work supporting the headliner bands for extra cash.) Despite the range of talent on hand, though, and $25,000 borrowed from a biker gang for cash flow, Brower and Walker explain how tickets just weren’t selling. People didn’t want to pay the ticket price of, wait for it, six dollars’ admission.

 

Landing John and Yoko

Revival69 finds a great narrative beat when Brower and Walker share the zany tale that saved backers from pulling out. They recall how someone suggested someone who suggested someone, which led to a lightbulb. “Why not approach John Lennon and Yoko Ono to emcee?”

Thanks to the presence of rock journalist Anthony Fawcett, who was in London with Lennon and Ono, the whole yarn is on the record. Fawcett recalls how Lennon and Ono, basking in the afterglow/notoriety of their bed-ins for peace, were open. He explains how the phone rang and he answered it and relayed a message. Some young concert promoters in Canada wanted them for a gig.

Audio recordings from Apple Records capture all the murmurings and back and forth between Lennon and Ono. They’re surprisingly intrigued, but the archive, which Chapman complements with Yellow Submarine-ish animation, shares how they checked the Revival’s credentials. To everyone’s surprise, John and Yoko said yes.

 

Pennebaker Footage Shines

The film has a lot of fun recapping the story of how Brower, Walker, and their team pulled off the show. Revival69 whisks audiences back to the days before social media, online ticket sales, and viral buzz. There’s a great madcap energy to be found in the anecdotes about how they spread the word about Lennon and Ono’s participation. Nobody believed them and journalists who fact checked the story received baffled denial from Lennon’s manager. And then there’s the tale of Lennon and Ono’s motorcycle escort from the airport to the stadium. It’s all slightly sketchy, but they did things differently then.

There’s extraordinary footage of the concert and its preparations, too, because D.A. Pennebaker got wind of the show. Shortly after filming Monterey Pop, Pennebaker hiked up to Toronto with his crew and shot the revival from all angles. The footage from the event is as good as that of any concert doc from the era. It is, after all, stuff from the Pennebaker crew. Pennebaker’s work admittedly endures in the 1971 documentary Sweet Toronto, although the restoration of the footage merits revisiting.

However, the striking archival contrasts sharply with the drably shot contemporary interviews. Revival oddly features its talking heads chorus, which includes Alice Cooper, Geddy Lee, and biker Edjo Leslie  appearing against a black backdrop shot in murky low-key lighting. The aesthetic leaves something to be desired. It also doesn’t lend itself well to home video viewing where bandwidth and resolution shift black uniformity on one’s screen.

 

Lennon’s Voice and Ono’s Screeching

The interviews, bland to look at as they are, nevertheless illuminate some of the gems amid the archives. For example, the snippets share how the revival was the event that launched Alice Cooper into notoriety for allegedly biting the head off a chicken. The footage shows that someone (possibly Brower) tossed the chicken to Cooper, who flipped the bird to the audience. What happened to said chicken remains a mystery.

The real gem of the film, though, is the moment that makes the concert significant. It’s the first public appearance of The Plastic Ono Band. After Lennon pauses to puke on stage, he joins Ono and company for their first post-Beatles performance. It’s the centrepiece of the film as it shows Lennon’s vulnerability as he re-auditions for the audience’s approval. Unfortunately, the doc also features footage of Ono’s signature singing style. She screeches like a banshee into the mic. There are, however, some great reactions of folks in the crowd watching in disbelief. Similarly, the takes from the interviewees convey the “you had to be there” awe of the experience. It’s a true novelty.

Thanks to all these perspectives, Revival69 holds its own as a companion to Sweet Toronto. It is, admittedly, pretty sweet to revisit Toronto’s rowdier days.

 

Revival69: The Concert that Rocked the World is now playing in select theatres including Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema and is coming soon to Crave.

Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association.

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