Along with Gimme Shelter, Let It Be, and Woodstock—all of which were released in 1970—this documentary represents a farewell of sorts to the counterculture dream of the ’60s as it manifested in peace-and-love music. Yet while Gimme Shelter is tragic, Let It Be is poignant, and Woodstock is idyllic, Fillmore has different energy. Two specific types of different energy, actually. Most of the movie is joyous, capturing the camaraderie and creativity of the San Francisco music scene. Yet the pure documentary bits of the movie are confrontational, because iconic rock-concert promoter Bill Graham—basically the star of the picture—comes off as something of a megalomaniacal bully. One can only imagine the frustrations of trying to talk business with rock stars whose minds are under the influence of drugs, ego, and success, but Graham’s combative style of foul language, guilt trips, peer pressure, and threats doesn’t exactly jibe with the Haight-Ashbury utopian dream.
Fillmore documents the final week of shows at the Fillmore West, Graham’s iconic San Francisco concert hall. (The spinoff venue in New York City, Fillmore East, closed immediately prior to the mothership, but the festivities weren’t given feature-film treatment.) Graham called in favors from most of the big names on the San Francisco scene, so Fillmore includes performances from the Grateful Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service, the New Riders of the Purple Sage, Santana, and others. Jefferson Airplane, who did not play the final week, is represented through archival footage depicting the growth of the flower-child counterculture in the Bay Area, and Creedence Clearwater Revival, who did perform in the final week, is conspicuously absent.
The picture is structured around clips of Graham, who is alternately portrayed as a blowhard with anger-management issues and as a devoted music fan soldiering through frustrating episodes. Performance scenes build from niche bands with big San Francisco followings (Cold Blood, Hot Tuna, Lamb) to mainstream stars (the Dead, Santana). Some of the music has not aged well, including the twee twinklings of husband-and-wife hippie act It’s A Beautiful Day, but the best stuff is amazing. The Dead grooves through funky versions of “Casey Jones” and the Chuck Berry classic “Johnny B. Goode,” while Cold Blood—fronted by fiery Lydia Pense—delivers a grinding blues-rock set. Paying off a running trope during which Graham battles with Santana’s management, Santana kills with the two instrumental numbers at the end of the movie, beautifully representing the unprecedented fusion of sounds that made the San Francisco scene so special.
Perhaps inadvertently, Fillmore predicts where the rock-concert business was headed in the ’70s, with corporate hassles raining on the can’t-we-all-just-get-along parade. So even if the direction by Eli F. Blech and Richard T. Heffron isn’t all that imaginative—lest we forget, the type of split-screen shots and superimpositions utilized here were innovated by the makers of Woodstock—Fillmore deserves a place in the rock-doc pantheon.