Playing to the Camera: Great Concert Films of the Classic Rock Era

Introduction of the IU Cinema President’s Choice Series and Pink Floyd: Live at Pompeii
IU Cinema
IU Bloomington
Bloomington, Indiana
February 11, 2013


Thank you, Jon [Vickers].

Let me begin by extending a welcome to State Representative Matt Pierce, and Bloomington Mayor Mark Kruzan, both of whom are with us this evening.

Let me also extend my congratulations to Jon Vickers and the staff of the Indiana University Cinema on the Cinema’s second anniversary, which was celebrated on January 13th.

These have been two enormously successful years of operation for the Cinema.

More than 90,000 tickets have been issued to patrons for screenings and lectures. 

Forty-two guests from the film-industry have served as Jorgensen Guest Filmmaker Lecturers—and many more guests from the film industry and academia have delivered talks or participated in interviews onstage.

More than 450 film titles and short programs have been presented to public audiences. These have included a number of American premieres and other special screenings.

And the Cinema has partnered with more than 70 Indiana University departments and centers to present programs related to students’ coursework and to host conferences and seminars that have drawn scholars from around the world.

The Cinema is, without question, one of the finest university cinemas in the nation, and it has very quickly become one of the jewels of the Bloomington campus.

I’m delighted to be here tonight to say a few words about this semester’s President’s Choice Series, which is comprised of four great concert films featuring bands and artists who were in their heyday in what we now call the “classic rock” era of the 1960s and early 1970s.

Concerts on Film

The desire to combine musical performance with visual images on film is nearly as old as film itself.

In the 17-second Edison film known as Dickson Experimental Sound Film, which was made in late 1894 or early 1895, Edison’s associate, W.K.L. Dickson, played a violin into an acoustic horn as two Edison employees danced.

Although it was a far cry from the modern concert film, this was the first attempt in history to record sound and the moving image in synchronization. Edison also dreamed of being able to present life-like audio-visual images of opera stars on film for those who were unable to attend the stars’ live performances, though the technology that would make this possible would not be developed during Edison’s lifetime.

But these very same impulses:

  • to combine music with visual imagery,
  • to document historic moments in musical and cultural history, and
  • to bring some of the great performances of the day to wider audiences

are the same impulses behind the four films in this series. 

Last week, the Cinema screened Woodstock, a film that has been called “the benchmark of concert movies” and a film that is, arguably, one of the most entertaining rock music documentaries ever made.

A week from tonight, Led Zeppelin: Celebration Day will be screened. The film documents what was one of the most eagerly awaited reunions in the history of rock and roll—Led Zeppelin’s 2007 concert in London’s O2 Arena. There were 20 million requests for tickets for this concert. The band reunited, joined onstage by Jason Bonham, the son of their late drummer, John Bonham—and played as the headliner at a benefit concert held in memory of their friend, the legendary founder and president of Atlantic Records and the visionary co-founder of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Ahmet Ertegun.

In late April, the series will conclude with D. A. Pennebaker’s 1967 film, Don’t Look Back,which documents Bob Dylan’s 1965 British tour, and included the now iconic music video for “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” Critic Roger Ebert has claimed that the film invented the rock documentary.

The IU Cinema screenings of these films are opportunities to see them as they were meant to be seen—on the big screen, and with state-of-the-art audio.

The performances captured in these films demonstrate that the great bands and performers of the classic rock era could actually play their instruments—in fact, their musicianship was superb—and these films also demonstrate that these artists were capable of generating great energy and excitement on stage.

Pink Floyd: Live at Pompeii

Tonight, you are about to witness a performance by one of the greatest English rock bands, Pink Floyd.

The band originally consisted of Syd Barrett on guitars and vocals, Roger Waters on bass, the late Rick Wright on keyboards, and Nick Mason on drums. David Gilmour joined as a fifth member late in 1967, and they were briefly a five-piece band, until Barrett left the band in April 1968.

Over four days in October 1971, the band recorded live performances of material primarily from their 1968 album, A Saucerful of Secrets, and their 1971 album, Meddle, at the foot of Mount Vesuvius in the oldest surviving Roman amphitheater in Pompeii, Italy—with no audience other than the crew.

Earlier in 1971, a young French film director, Adrian Maben, approached Pink Floyd’s manager with the idea of making a film in which the band’s music would be accompanied by images of the work of René Magritte, Jean Tinguely, Giorgio de Chirico, and other artists.

The band wasn’t interested.

Shortly thereafter, while sightseeing in Italy, Maben believed he had lost his passport in the Amphitheater of Pompeii. He persuaded security guards to let him back in to look for it, and, although he didn’t find his passport—he did find inspiration.

“Alone in the deserted arena in the dwindling light,” writes journalist Mark Blake, “Maben was struck by the ghostliness of the setting, and the fabulous natural acoustics amplifying the sound of buzzing insects and flying bats flitting among the ruins.”1 

Maben later said that he felt the world had had enough of traditional concert films. His ideas was to do what he called “an anti-Woodstock film, where there would be nobody present, and the music, and the silence, and the empty amphitheater would say as much as—if not more than—a crowd of a million.”2 

The four-day shoot for Pink Floyd: Live at Pompeii was beset by more than its share of problems.

For starters, there was no electricity. We saw recently that even modern Super Bowl venues can have electrical challenges, but, in 1971, the 2,000-year-old Amphitheater of Pompeii was certainly not equipped to power the touring equipment of a progressive rock band. After some delay, a cable was run from the town hall, through the streets of Pompei to the amphitheater, with a roadie standing guard to make sure no one unplugged it.3 

Drummer Nick Mason also wrote that, at some point, one of the reels of film was misplaced, and, as a result, you will see a lengthy shot of nothing but the drumming on the song, “One of These Days,” since there was little other footage from which to choose.4

The original 60-minute version of Live at Pompeii premiered at the Edinburgh Film Festival in 1972. The next year, Maben, who felt the original version was too short, filmed the band working on their breakthrough album, The Dark Side of the Moon, at the legendary Abbey Road Studios, and included that footage in a recut 1974 version. This documentary represents a key point in the development of the band between their original lengthy improvisational, mainly instrumental works and the era of Dark Side of the Moon and all that came after it. 

The 1974 version of the film, which is the one you will see tonight, also contains footage of the band shot in Paris in 1972. The rare 35mm print that is being screened tonight was recently shown as part of the 50th anniversary of the New York Film Festival.

George A. Reisch, who lectures on the history and philosophy of science at Northwestern University and who has written extensively on popular culture and philosophy, writes that “Pink Floyd seems natural and comfortable in this setting not simply because they play so well or because the cameras glide around the band and the open-air amphitheater so elegantly. It is because the themes and ideas they had just begun to explore musically on Meddle and Dark Side—such as time, death, madness, loss, and empathy—are among those that philosophers of ancient Greece and Italy began to scrutinize over two thousand years ago—not far from the place where the volcano Vesuvius erupted to strip away all but the stone buildings of this once bustling Italian village.”

Reisch continues: “Even the philosophical and cultural metaphor of Enlightenment that would soon help catapult the band to international stardom—the battle between the light and clarity of understanding and the darkness of shadows, mystery, and madness—is unmistakable as the band plays alternately in the bright sun and the murky darkness.”5

While it is true that the large open spaces and stone structures of the Amphitheater of Pompeii added resonance to the profound themes the band was beginning to explore in their music, what the members of Pink Floyd demonstrated most clearly in Live at Pompeii was that they could carry a film with the simple power of their performance.

So now, please enjoy David Gilmour, Nick Mason, Roger Waters, and Richard Wright in Pink Floyd: Live at Pompeii.

Source Notes

  1. Mark Blake, Comfortably Numb: The Inside Story of Pink Floyd, (thunder’s Mouth Press, 2008),166-167.
  2. Adrian Maben, as quoted in John Harris, The Dark Side of the Moon: The Making of the Pink Floyd Masterpiece, (Da Capo Press, 2005), 75.
  3. Blake, 167
  4. Nick Mason, Inside Out: A Personal History of Pink Floyd, (Chronicle Books, 2005), 177.
  5. George A. Reisch, Pink Floyd and Philosophy: Careful With That Axiom, Eugene!, (Open Court Publishing, 2007), x-xi.