Murray Lerner, Who Filmed Music’s Biggest Stars, Dies at 90
By NEIL GENZLINGER
SEPT. 5, 2017
Murray Lerner in an undated photo. MLF Productions
Murray Lerner, whose documentaries captured some of the world’s greatest folk and rock musicians in era-defining performances, died on Saturday at his home in Long Island City, Queens. He was 90.
The cause was kidney failure, his assistant, Eliot Kissileff, said.
Mr. Lerner filmed the Newport Folk Festival for four years in the early and middle 1960s, including the much-referenced moment when Bob Dylan plugged in an electric guitar. He also filmed the volatile 1970 Isle of Wight Festival, where commercial and communal sensibilities collided.
But an entirely different type of music brought him his only Oscar, for “From Mao to Mozart: Isaac Stern in China,” which was named best documentary feature in 1981.
Murray Lerner was born on May 8, 1927, in Philadelphia. His father, Nacham, left the family soon after; he was raised by his mother, the former Goldie Levine, in New York.
Mr. Lerner graduated from Harvard in 1948 with a poetry degree, but also with the beginnings of a career: While there, he had helped create a film production society and had begun teaching himself how to be a filmmaker.
His first feature-length documentary was an underwater film called “Secrets of the Reef,” which he directed with Lloyd Ritter and Robert M. Young in 1956. But it was his decision to document the Newport Folk Festival in 1963 that proved pivotal.
He would return to that event for the next three years, coming away with hours of film of Mr. Dylan, Joan Baez, Mississippi John Hurt, Johnny Cash, Donovan, Peter, Paul and Mary, and more.
The blue musician Mississippi John Hurt performing at the Newport Folk Festival in the early 1960s in Murray Lerner’s film “Festival,” released in 1967. Criterion Collection-Janus Films
His first documentary made from that footage, “Festival,” came out in 1967. The images shot by Mr. Lerner have become an important archival trove, capturing a cultural moment, and the film was nominated for an Oscar.
(One critic, Bosley Crowther of The New York Times, however, was put off by the mumbling and inarticulateness of both performers and audience members in “Festival.” “ You know’ is constantly interjected, even in the middle of sentences, to cover or even dismiss an inadequately clarified thought,” he wrote in his review. “However, it is in their music that these people express themselves, and I suppose the music is thoroughly adequate.”)
Forty years after making “Festival,” Mr. Lerner drew on the same material to tease out one particular story line in “The Other Side of the Mirror: Bob Dylan Live at the Newport Folk Festival.” That film drew on three years’ worth of Mr. Dylan’s performances, including the one in 1965, in which he played an electric guitar, a development that may or may not have led the audience to boo (depending on whom you ask). But the film inarguably conveyed why Mr. Dylan mattered so much, then and now.
“It’s a remarkably pure and powerful documentary, partly because it’s so simple,” A. O. Scott wrote in his review in The Times. “The sound mix is crisp, the black-and-white photography is lovely, and the songs, above all, can be heard in all their earnest, enigmatic glory.”
Bob Dylan - Live at the Newport Folk Festival
Bob Dylan - Live at the Newport Folk Festival Video by BobDylanTV
Mr. Lerner also made a series of documentaries from film he shot at the Isle of Wight Festival, off the south coast of England, in 1970, a year when that event had a particularly starry lineup and drew hundreds of thousands of fans, many without tickets. Fences were stormed, and the crowd disrupted some performances.
Mr. Lerner released “Jimi Hendrix at the Isle of Wight” in 1991, and the more general “Message to Love: The Isle of Wight Festival” in 1996. Later films focused on the performances of others at the 1970 event, among them the Who, Jethro Tull, Miles Davis and Leonard Cohen. At his death, Mr. Lerner had just completed a film about Joni Mitchell’s Isle of Wight set.
His “Mao to Mozart” documented the violinist Isaac Stern’s trip to China in 1979, an important event in the culture thaw, taking place after the death of Mao Zedong in 1976.
Mr. Lerner is survived by his wife, the former Judith Levine, whom he married in 1961; a son, Noah; and two grandchildren.
Bob Dylan performing in Newport in Mr. Lerner’s documentary “Festival.” Criterion Collection-Janus Films
Throughout his career, Mr. Lerner also made films about subjects other than music, including “To Be a Man,” a 1966 documentary about student life at Yale, where Mr. Lerner would later teach film, and “Magic Journeys” (1982), a 3-D short depicting the world through the eyes of a child. It has been shown for years at Disney theme parks.
The music documentaries, though, remain his claim to fame. In a 2011 interview Mr. Lerner was asked about his apparent knack for being at big events with a camera.
“I think I have a feeling for what is happening and what is going to happen, and I move towards that moment,” he said. But he also knew that the filmmaker is not merely a passive observer.
“Maybe I’m being egotistical,” he said, “but to be honest, I’m making it that moment. I’m describing it in a way that makes it a moment.” He added, “I think I was using history to create an idea.”
Making a good music documentary, he said in the same interview, meant putting something of himself into it.
“I’m portraying what I feel, which is different from just recording a concert,” he said.
“Most people think if they just turn a camera on and the group is great, that that is what they need to do, which isn’t so at all,” he added. “I become part of the band when I film a band. That’s the secret, if it is a secret. Don’t tell anyone.”