Something of a footnote to Woodstock (1970), the classic documentary immortalizing the most famous musical happening of the ’60s, Celebration at Big Sur was filmed just weeks after the Woodstock Music and Arts Festival, but it wasn’t released theatrically until almost two years later. Featuring several artists who also performed at Woodstock—plus a notable performer who did not, Joni Mitchell—Celebration at Big Sur is choppy and inconsistent, with interrupted songs, truncated versions of artists’ sets, and lots of peripheral nonsense comprising the picture’s brisk 83-minute running time. Despite a few musical highlights, the most interesting stretch of the picture involves vituperative Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young member Stephen Stills brawling with an obnoxious heckler. After the fight, Stills gets onstage and says how grateful he is that “some guys were there to love me out of it,” then adds, in words that seem like a parody of flower-child parlance, “We gotta just let it be, because it all will be how it’s gonna.” Whatever it takes to keep the vibe going, man. As for those musical highlights, Joan Baez delivers her usual professional renderings of tunes including “Sir Galahad,” Mitchell offers an ornate reading of “Woodstock,” CSNY churns through (part of) “Down by the River,” and Mitchell teams with David Crosby, Graham Nash, John Sebastian, and Stills for a zesty version of “Get Together.” Woodstock Lite, to be sure, but pleasant enough.
Regarding this project’s backstory, from 1964 to 1971, the Big Sur Folk Festival was held on the grounds of the mind-expanding Esalen Institute, located on a scenic bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. The performances in Celebration at Big Sur were filmed in 1969. Hollywood comedy writer Carl Gottleib produced the picture, but he failed to provide a guiding aesthetic or theme—random vignettes capture everything from a pointless conversation with a local cop to shots of Crosby and Stills taking a nude sauna with other longhairs. One can’t help but get the sense of West Coast progressives desperately trying to get in on the Yasgur’s Farm action, even though the Big Sur event seems antiseptic and exclusive by comparison to Woodstock. And by the time the filmmakers try to jazz up the style of the picture with solarized double exposures while Mitchell adds a yodeling freakout to the end of “Woodstock,” the grasping for cultural relevance becomes almost painfully desperate. Celebration at Big Sur captures a moment, but other films—including not just Woodstock but also Monterey Pop (1968)—capture almost exactly the same moment much more effectively.
Celebration at Big Sur: FUNKY