Star in his reels

For over 40 years, Tony Palmer has made acclaimed documentaries about titans of the music and arts world. Now, the director is the subject of a tribute at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque.

311_Tony Palmer (photo credit: Courtesy)
311_Tony Palmer
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Tony Palmer has had a fabulous career to date. Consider the facts. For over 40 years he has been making acclaimed documentaries about titans of the contemporary music and arts world across the board, from the Beatles and oddball rock envelope pusher Frank Zappa to Maria Callas and Stravinsky, and from Jimi Hendrix and seminal rock group Cream to Shostakovich and celebrated ballet dancer Margot Fonteyn. The subjects of his long and star-studded filmography include some of the great icons of the twentieth century.
Fittingly, Palmer and his work are the subject of a tribute currently in progress at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque. Next week he will be in town along with Gottfried Wagner, the great-grandson of the famous composer, to attend a screening of a section of a mammoth portrayal of the Wagner family which will take place on Sunday at 7 p.m. The full opus runs to almost eight hours.
One only needs to mention some of the cast members of the Wagner effort – Richard Burton, John Gielgud and Laurence Olivier, to name but a few – to get an idea of Palmer’s lofty status within the movie community. Considering Palmer’s immense and rich CV thus far, with over 100 documentary and theatrical films, plays and operas under his belt – and awards galore – the local tribute offers not much more than a brief glimpse of his impressive oeuvre; but it isn’t too bad for starters.
The Palmer season opened this week with Testimony, a portrait of 20th-century Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich starring Ben Kingsley, and closes on July 23 with the totally off-the-wall Frank Zappa outing 200 Motels, from 1971. In between there’s the snippet of the Wagner production, and Parsifal – based on Wagner’s last opera with documentary excerpts, interviews and current affairs slots woven into the fabric of the film.
Palmer and Wagner will be on hand to answer questions after the Wagner screening, and the film director will share some of his insight with us prior to Parsifal.
For Palmer, the key to his work has always been empathizing with his subjects and making sure they knew he was on their side.
“You have to gain their trust, otherwise you’re not going to get anything out of them,” he states. That doesn’t mean, however, slipping into ego-stroking mode.
“You know, these great artists are not idiots. They know when you’re being straight with them. If a musician comes off the stage and he’s had a really poor concert, and you tell him it was great, he’s going to know you’re not telling the truth.
“For all their ego, these stars know when they’ve performed well and when they’ve done something badly.
They know they’re not perfect.”
AS IS sometimes the case, Palmer fell into his daytime job by chance, and thanks to some unwitting help from the fairer sex.
“I was studying at Cambridge University and I was going to lead the quiet life of an academic,” he recalls.
Surely, though, as a teenager he must have had his idols, and fantasies about meeting some of them, even if thoughts of actually portraying their life and work in documentary profiles may not have even been within his cerebral hinterland.
“Not at all,” he states flatly. “I had absolutely none of that in my youth.”
So, how did Palmer get into the music side of the film business? “A friend of mine was going to Austria to do a film about the [music and drama] Salzburg Festival. As he didn’t speak any German, and I knew some, he asked me to come along and help – like a sort of summer job.
“I remember one day I saw an art class taking place and everyone was sketching a gorgeous completely naked girl, and I thought to myself: I can do this job.”
That he could, and can, is abundantly clear. Before long – in 1966 – he had secured a job with the BBC and got off to a flying start.
“I made a documentary about [English composer] Benjamin Britten,” says Palmer. “Actually I inherited it, as the original director was fired, and it went very well. It was the first BBC documentary to be networked around the United States.”
That set Palmer on the path to a highly successful career in documentary filmmaking. From the lofty environs of classical music he graduated to the more roughand- ready artistic environs of the pop and rock worlds.
His second project, All My Loving, is an examination of rock’n’roll and politics in the late 1960s.
Here, too, Lady Luck played her part with aplomb.
“I met John Lennon when I was at Cambridge, and we became very good friends. Amazingly, back then the BBC had not made any films about any of the pop and rock stars of the time. In his inimitable way, John said it was my ‘duty’ to get the BBC to open up to him and his fellow rockers and pop artists.
“I realized it was important to show the BBC, and the world, that rock’n’roll was about a lot more than long hair and drugs.”
Even after decades of working closely with so many celebrities for so long, you could never say Palmer was star-struck. However, it is clear that he has great respect for his subjects.
“On the face of it, you may think that Lennon and Maria Callas had absolutely nothing in common. But what they, and all the other great artists, shared was their enormous courage – intellectual, emotional, physical and moral courage, and I am always attracted to people like that, and fascinated by the quality that makes people special.”
Palmer gets to know all his subjects well, and says he is always as keen to portray them as people – with all their human frailties – as he is to show them as stars and talented artists. “The documentary about Callas was about a woman who was in a hell of a mess and was also a great singer; and vice versa.”
Palmer is passionate about his work and, it appears, about his subjects.
“Margot Fonteyn was one of the greatest dancers of all time. She was on the stage from the age of 14 and right up to the age of 67. She was used by people and, when she died, she lived in a hut with no electricity and was living off cornflakes.
“How could that possibly happen?” says Palmer with undisguised angst, adding that his subjects always wanted him to tell their story truthfully, warts and all.
“Margot once said, ‘I know you’re going to make a film about me one day.’ I said I probably would, and she said I should tell it the way it was.”
In a way, it is somewhat ironic that Palmer will be here at the same time as the annual Jerusalem Film Festival, the supremo of which – Lia van Leer – recently caused him no small degree of frustration.
The bone of contention is a documentary Palmer made about Leonard Cohen in 1972, by the name of Bird on a Wire. A Palmer documentary about Cohen’s world tour back then was released, but it was a heavily edited version and Palmer was less than satisfied with the end result. However, many years later the sections that had been weeded out were discovered by Zappa’s then manager, Herb Cohen.
“THE FILM virtually disappeared, then a year ago, Herb found 296 cans of bits and pieces of the film and I spent six months piecing it all together,” says Palmer.
“I offered the film to Lia, to have the world premiere of the film at this year’s Jerusalem Film Festival. But, amazingly, Lia turned the idea down. Can you imagine having the world premiere of this film in Jerusalem – and she said no!” The film will be out on DVD, worldwide, on August 1.
Palmer’s professional success appears to stem from a winning combination of talent, skill, respect for his subjects and an unwavering call-‘em-as-I-see-‘em ethos. The latter quality applies equally both to the subjects and the consumers of his work.
“[Renowned rock guitarist] Eric Clapton said to me that he felt that [his super-group] Cream had not been honest, by playing the same repertoire over and over again for three years. I told him that if he wanted to be completely honest, he should take his guitar into the middle of a cornfield in Mississippi and play there with his eyes shut. I said that if he’s on stage he’s got to play for the public, whether he likes it or not.”
Palmer also had the inside track on Cream’s eventual, seemingly acrimonious, break up. “They were just knackered, but they were such great musicians. They could have taken a year out and got back together again, but that wasn’t to be.”
At the end of the day, Palmer sees himself as nothing more than a conduit.
“The closer I got to these great artists, the more I empathized with them, and celebrated what they do,” he says. His work makes that philosophy abundantly clear.
For more information about the Tony Palmer tribute: