When was the last time you saw a grown man kiss his own a*s on screen for 100-plus minutes? OK, The Kid Stays in the Picture, Robert Evans’s audiobook with photo illustrations turned into a feature film, qualifies. So do any of the Nuremberg-like rallies held by a certain president of the United States whom I refuse to mention here.
Then there’s the US Festival 1982: The US Generation Documentary, whose underlying purpose is to heap praise on Apple Computers co-founder Steve Wozniak, who conceived of and bankrolled the musical-technology extravaganza that took place in blistering San Bernardino, Calif., heat 36 years ago.
Yes, the film includes some great performances by bands, back then on the cusp of international fame, including The Police, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, the B-52s, the Cars, and Talking Heads, among others. Also included were oldsters Fleetwood Mac, the Kinks, the Grateful Dead, and Santana. But soon after the first snippets of music are played it becomes obvious that chatter is going to get an annoyingly large amount of screen time at the expense of the music. Some acts get stiffed, others, such as the Ramones, get a sliver of time, maybe a 20 seconds, and a handful of acts get one song apiece.
Most of the rest of the time is spent talking about the logistics of setting up the show and other such trivia. Wozniak — his friends call him “Woz” — spent about $13 million and lost money in the bargain. He says the idea was to provide a safe, clean and enjoyable experience with the best sound system, the biggest stage, the greatest number of lighting instruments ever.
It would be a festival that was all things that Woodstock was not — well organized and carried out with clockwork precision. And let’s not even talk about Altamont, where the Hell’s Angels were in charge of security, and we know how that worked out.
“…it’s great that for once musicians didn’t get ripped off by a sleazy promoter.”
Some of the musicians who performed at US are full of praise for Wozniak. They’ got paid the most money they’d ever made for one gig and played in front of more people than they’d ever performed for up to that time. What’s not to like? You have to admit, it’s great that for once musicians didn’t get ripped off by a sleazy promoter. That probably can only happen when a rank amateur such as Wozniak is in charge.
Realizing his own limitations as a rock entrepreneur, he ended up hiring veteran concert promoter Bill Graham to direct the operation, and Graham, a flinty sort, smoothed the way for the festival to proceed while adding some friction to the mix as well. There were dust-ups over backstage passes, with Graham’s people even refusing to allow some performers through the gates.
But the three-day festival apparently worked like a precision instrument. One exception was a planned satellite linkup between the festival and a studio of music fans in Russia. Graham believed the whole thing was a hoax. When the video hookup finally was made he pulled the plug on it because he believed that the video was coming from a studio in Southern California, not Russia. This was considered a big deal at the time because the technology they were using was new, so for Wozniak its failure was a major disappointment.
Video hookup problems aside, the overall look of this documentary footage shows its age. It’s in a square, made for TV circa 1982 format. And it looks a bit washed out, not the crisp restored quality that we’ve come to expect in recent times.
But what makes it even more television-like is the repetition of certain interview clips, especially where the interviewee gives a punchy quote, and the same clip is repeated a little later. It feels less like a feature film and more like tacked together segments that were edited to fit comfortably around commercial breaks. The original piece was perhaps intended for broadcast over several days, so repetitions make sense, but here it feels cheesy. Couldn’t they have taken out the segments that reiterate certain points?
“…Wozniak blew 13 big ones, all in the name of putting on a really big show for his bestest 300,000 buddies.”
Throughout the film, one of the angles that keeps getting hammered home is how great Wozniak is for creating this gift to music fans. Only one interviewee alludes to what might be a motivation behind the making of this documentary — that Wozniak never got the credit he deserves. We’re told, several times at least, that US was the blueprint for the popular and successful Coachella Festival. The jury’s still out on that one.
While we can only speculate about Wozniak’s motives — the film mentions that Steve Jobs was incensed when he heard about the festival but doesn’t explain why — it’s clear that a component of the festival, a technology promoting sideshow, displayed at least some measure of self-serving boosterism for Wozniak, the tech guru, as well as his company, Apple.
Despite all, you might think this is being a little rough on the guy, and perhaps it is. Except, the final segment of the film is a series of interview clips with performers and others singing Wozniak’s praises. It’s awkward, slightly embarrassing and a little uncomfortably close to a Cabinet meeting of a certain president of the United States. You may remember it. It’s the one where the head guy insisted that each Cabinet member sing the praises of said fearless leader and the glorious republic over which he rules. Someone find me a barf bag.
Yes, Wozniak blew 13 big ones of his own filthy lucre, all in the name of putting on a really big show for his bestest 300,000 buddies. Fair enough. But the film seems, at its heart, a promotional vehicle for a rich man rather than what it should be, a concert film that shows us more of the music and less yakking. Especially since it was a time when new wave rock ’n’ roll was cresting in popularity and creative energy. That’s the film that we ought to be seeing.
The US Festival 1982: The US Generation Documentary (2018) Directed by Glenn Aveni. Starring Mick Fleetwood, Stewart Copeland, Mickey Hart, Carlos Harvey, Andy Hertzfeld, Eddie Money, Kate Pierson, Derek Power, Joe Sharino, Sherry Wasserman, Steve Wozniak.
4 out of 10 smashed Stratocasters