The Concert for Bangladesh
At the Charles Street Cinema
HALF THE FUN of rock and roll is stage presence and pure showmanship. The major problem with live recordings of rock music is that no matter how good they are, they cannot completely capture and transmit the important visual aspect of the music. Rock movies have become important because they are able to unite the visual with the musical, the sight with the sound, the spirit with the flesh.
The Concert for Bangladesh was the rock-musical event of 1971. On August 1 a galaxy of musicians including George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, and Leon Russell joined together in one huge band, one night only, to raise money for the refugees of Bangladesh. Cameras and tape recorders were rolling away during the concert, and as a result we were given a recording of the concert last December, and now at last we have the movie.
That film--The Concert for Bangladesh--adds the needed dimension to the record: it comes as close as possible to recreating an event that is all too rare--the rock concert for charity instead of profit.
WHAT DO OUR eyes see in the move that our ears couldn't hear on the record? Well there's the time during "That's the Way God Planned It" that Billy Preston leaps from behind his organ and runs across the stage as though God has indeed given him the call, and we get to see, really see. Ringo Starr singing in tune on "It Don't Come Easy." And then we get to view the surprising calm with which Leon Russell goes through the entire show, a look of distance on his face, wondering perhaps why he is stuck in back of a bank of amplifiers instead of playing out front as he usually does. Even during "Jumpin Jack Flash" when Harrison has ripped off his coat and the band is playing at a lever pitch. Russell stares vacantly across the stage, hardly working up a sweat, yet creating an air of excitement with his vocal and piano work.
We're able to witness Bob Dylan having lots of fun, obviously enjoying his return to the stage. His performance of songs like "A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall" and "Mr. Tambourine Man" seem to take on a new kind of urgency when seen as well as heard.
The movie also presents us with a heightened sense of Harrison's control over the entire proceedings. His presence is strongly felt as he counts off all the songs, brings them to an end, introduces the other musicians, and generally calls all the shots. The movie makes sure that we know who the star really is.
BUT THE movie's importance goes beyond merely presenting us with the visual side of the concert. Just as the concert departed from the conventional rock format of seemingly endless jam sessions to present essentially note for note renditions of the original songs, so too the movie ignores the trends of its two important predecessors. Woodstock and Gimme Shelter. Woodstock and Gimme Shelter employed slick camera techniques, clever editing, split screens, and concentrated as much on the events surrounding the concerts as the music itself. The Concert for Bangladesh, on the other hand, uses the most pedestrian of camera techniques, choosing to focus mainly on the performers' faces, with only occasional pans to the audience. The editing is uninspired, and the split screen, used so effectively in Woodstock, is employed only once. It's used to reinforce the climax of Ravi Shankar's performance, but since the split screen is used only once, it seems terribly out of place, as though it might be the deleted footage of Shankar's performance at Woodstock. At various points throughout the movie, most notably during the song "Bangladesh," there is footage of the Bangladesh refugees, serving to remind us that the concert just wasn't for fun and games.
Unfortunately many people will never go see The Concert for Bangladesh, feeling that it is "just another rock movie." That's too bad, because The Concert for Bangladesh is more than just a concert, more than just a movie: the film is an important record of an important event.