You don’t see films about popular music stars of the 21st century on the big screen too often. Recently Katy Perry and Justin Bieber have managed it, and a few years back there was Dig! – about the rivalry between the Brian Jonestown Massacre and the Dandy Warhols – which almost qualifies. But the back end of the 1960s saw the beginning of a run of them, from 1969’s Monterey Pop film, then on to the Rolling Stones’ Gimme Shelter and Woodstock in 1970, before everyone – Pink Floyd, David Bowie, Led Zeppelin – got in on the act. Director Tony Palmer got in early and used his record of rock supergroup Cream’s last concert, originally conceived as a programme in the BBC’s arts strand Omnibus, to convince the world, in a slightly desperate and unnecessary manner, of the relevance of rock musicians (some of them were classically trained, you know).
Then rock was still new and exciting and frightened people. Now, with rock in the phase where it creatively recycles itself, as jazz does, it is a good time to look back on the moment when blues and psychedelia met and gave birth to the baby we’re still holding today. Then, stylish bassist Jack Bruce and crazed drummer Ginger Baker were every bit as well known as Eric Clapton. Now they’re footnotes and only Eric is remembered (though “White Room”, a Jack Bruce song, will survive long after the band members are all dust.) Consisting of the guys gigging at the Royal Albert Hall in November 1968, intercut with interviews backstage, it’s a direct link to the era when rock gigs were recorded with scant regard for sound quality, though the 2005 remaster does clean things up a lot and adds a few more songs. “Sunshine of Your Love” kicks things off, before the band run through a greatest hits set list including “Politician”, “I’m So Glad” and “Toad”, Baker’s steamtrain of a drum solo. There are only six songs in the original film (ten on the remaster) and from the way the band interact musically – they’re all at full stretch almost throughout, improvising like crazy – you’d never guess that Bruce and Baker in particular really didn’t get on. Connecting the whole thing together is a totally square voiceover by Patrick Allen (who refers to the band as “The Cream” throughout). And as for Palmer’s freak-out psychedelic camerawork – like wow, man.
© Steve Morrissey 2013