‘Peter Whitehead, who has died aged 82, could justifiably claim to be one of Britain’s most distinctive and provocative film-makers. His film about the Rolling Stones, Charlie Is My Darling (1966), was a pioneering portrait of the group amid the whirlwind of fan mania, its on-the-road intimacy a precursor of Donn Pennebaker’s Bob Dylan film Don’t Look Back and a blueprint for countless future music documentaries.
‘In Tonite Let’s All Make Love in London (1967), Whitehead created what for many critics was the definitive document of swinging London in its period as a white-hot crucible of music, fashion and film. The many short music films Whitehead made in the 1960s foreshadowed the era of the video promo clip that blossomed in the MTV era of the 80s.
‘But by the time he made The Fall (1969), arguably his masterpiece, the intellectually restless Whitehead had moved beyond being merely an onlooker recording events with his camera and was pursuing his own inner journey through a period of violent social and political change.
‘His most intensely creative period began in 1965, when he filmed the International Poetry Incarnation – a gathering of beat poets, including Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti – at the Royal Albert Hall in London, to make the 33-minute documentary Wholly Communion.
‘Word of this reached the Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham, who invited Whitehead to film the Stones’ trip to Belfast and Dublin in September that year. The resulting Charlie Is My Darling had its first public screening at the 1966 Mannheim film festival, where it was considered for the gold medal (which was won instead by Wholly Communion). However, a clash with Oldham about the film’s portrayal of the Stones meant that it never went on general release.
‘Whitehead did further work with the Stones, including the promo film for the single Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing in the Shadow? (1966) and the audacious clip for We Love You (1967). The latter was shot the day before Mick Jagger and Keith Richards appealed against their drug convictions, and starred the two Stones and Marianne Faithfull in a remake of Oscar Wilde’s indecency trial. “My ambitions are very high – none higher – to be a genius in and with the cinema,” Whitehead wrote in a letter to Oldham.
‘Though he was a classical music enthusiast with little interest in pop, Whitehead understood its potency. He shot films with the Small Faces, the Beach Boys, Eric Burdon, Jimi Hendrix, Nico, the Beach Boys and Pink Floyd, and in 1970 he made a memorable concert film of Led Zeppelin at the Albert Hall.
‘While Tonite Let’s All Make Love in London made Whitehead the toast of the 60s in-crowd, the film also included critical remarks about the vapidity of the London milieu from Jagger, Michael Caine and David Hockney. Whitehead himself, a vehement opponent of US imperialism and the Vietnam war, had a theory that the invention of “swinging London” was “a CIA manoeuvre designed to make British counterculture appear inconsequential and impotent”, as he wrote in 2002.
‘Thus he was enthusiastic about Peter Brook’s invitation to film his experimental Royal Shakespeare Company play US, designed to challenge British apathy about the escalating Vietnam conflict. When the resulting film, Benefit of the Doubt, was screened alongside Tonite … at the New York film festival in September 1967, Whitehead was invited to make a film about the New York “scene”.
‘He was eager to oblige, but the project, eventually released as The Fall (1969), ballooned into a panorama of politics, violent protest and an anguished examination of the role of the documentary film-maker, as Whitehead became a participant in the 1968 student occupation of New York’s Columbia University. His filming schedule was bookended by the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. He wrote that when he got back to London, “I had a nervous breakdown. Didn’t speak for three months.”
‘The traumas of making The Fall prompted Whitehead to move away from film-making. Though he made Daddy (1973), a sexual psychodrama about the sculptor Niki de Saint Phalle, and Fire in the Water (1977), a vehicle for his then partner Nathalie Delon, his attention now centred on breeding falcons. A student of ancient Egyptian mythology, he was obsessed with the story of Isis and Osiris giving birth to Horus the falcon.’ — The Guardian
Peter Whitehead Official Site
Peter Whitehead @ IMDb
Whitehead, Peter (1937- 2019)
Notes from Underground
‘The Films of Peter Whitehead’, by Robert Chilcott
Peter Whitehead – Réalisateur de ‘Pop Concerto’
Peter Whitehead et Niki de Saint Phalle : Daddy
DVD: Peter Whitehead and the Sixties
Peter Whitehead @ datacide
The Word and the Image: The Films of Peter Whitehead
Peter Whitehead, il filmmaker della lotta e del rock
Peter Whitehead @ The Sticking Place
From pop concerto to falconry – a beginner’s guide to Peter Whitehead’s world
PETER WHITEHEAD: REVOLUTION, REVELATION – PINK FLOYD LONDON 1966-1967
Peter Whitehead Was There
‘I’ve never been interested in the real world’
In the Beginning was the Image: Conversations with Peter Whitehead
The Move in a rare early interview by Peter Whitehead
Peter Whitehead Piece
Peter Whitehead in conversation with Nicole Brenez at The BFI
from Electric Sheep
CLF: What can you tell us about the film you’re now working on, Terrorism Considered as one of the Fine Arts?
PW: My new film can be considered The Fall‘s sequel since it enacts the end of representation. The protagonist is Michael Schlieman, a MI6 spy working in the terrorism section of the British intelligence. He disappeared and will publish his ‘confessions’ on the internet, revealing the truth about secret operations carried out by various governments. There is a parallel between the sinking of the French Greenpeace boat, the Rainbow Warrior, and the terrorist state murder of a Greenpeace photographer. Schlieman is now part of an eco-terrorist group… the central element of the film is the killing of an ideal victim. I want to investigate the CIA’s influence on English culture, which is based on misinformation. This new film is influenced by Thomas De Quincey’s novels, Confessions of an Opium Eater and Murder Considered as a Fine Art, and I’d say that it is about fear and control, or better still, about the fear that the state spreads in order to control. After having destroyed the Third World now we are also destroying this planet; Gaia is now, rightly so, revolting.
CLF: Can cinema participate in social struggles, or does it merely register/ document?
PW: Yes, partly it can but it’s just a little part. I think that avant-garde art always has to be directly and belligerently dangerous, destructive, but not towards itself, rather, towards the collective inertia. The true aim of art should be to cultivate acts of war… it’s not enough to paint words on walls, these walls need to be torn down.
CLF: Can you tell us more about the magazine you co-founded, Afterimage?
PW: I founded that magazine with Field and Sainsbury in 1970, we were mainly influenced by Cahiers and its political commitment and wanted to bring across the channel some avant-garde cinema such as Godard’s British Sounds (Peter Whitehead was the first one to translate Godard’s films into English) which remains little seen to these days. We were the first to publish the Manifesto of Third Cinema by Solanas and Getino in Europe besides reviewing Guney, Fassbinder and Herzog among others.
CLF: While watching the early Rolling Stones performances in Charlie is My Darling I felt that back then they were using a language that many found dangerous and hyper-kinetic. What attracted you most to that band?
PW: You got the point, the media back then was focusing on the style of the band while for me it was a matter of form or language, as you said. They were adopting the musical culture of the Afro-Americans, an oppressed minority, therefore that music was carrying a strong political message in itself. Jagger himself said, ‘music is one of the things that can change society, don’t let white kids listen to black music if you want them to remain how they are’.
CLF: I’ve just watched your first film The Perception of Life, and in spite of being poles apart from the rest of your production I thought that it somehow represented your cinema quite well. What do you think of that film?
PW: I have to admit that back then I didn’t like the film but, later on I got interested by the fact that it was all shot through a microscope, in other words I was not using the camera, I was using a microscope, and many sequences are shot through the oldest machines used by scientists. We were looking for what these scientists were seeing through those lenses. Perception shows how theories are determined by what is visible. You’re right, in a sense all my films are linked to the idea of using the camera as a microscope. I think that in all my films I enter a situation and I try to analyse it from the inside.
9 of Peter Whitehead’s 16 films
Wholly Communion (1966)
‘Now celebrated as the quintessential document of the event that marked the arrival of the counterculture in England, Wholly Communion was actually captured under highly restricted conditions – and was almost never completed. The First International Poetry Incarnation, an evening of American and British Beat poetry, took place on 11th June 1965; the film’s birth was as spontaneous as the event itself. Peter Whitehead had attended an intimate reading by Allen Ginsberg, at which was suggested the apparently foolhardy idea of booking the Albert Hall for Ginsberg and his contemporaries to gather and perform their poems. Yet after a few days’ organisation, 7,000 people of various hitherto unconnected subcultures arrived, with many turned away as tickets sold out.
‘Wholly Communion is perhaps the most distinctive British example of a documentary movement that attempted to capture reality while interrogating it: ‘direct cinema’. Whitehead’s camera draws attention to itself and the filmmaker’s presence by filming Gregory Corso’s reading from between two other poets talking during the performance. This technique emphasises the filmmaker’s subjectivity while also identifying the camera (and therefore the viewer) with the perspective of the audience present at the event.
‘Whitehead shows as much interest in the audience as he does in the poets. Exotic spectators such as the girl who dances with a flower to the cadence of Ginsberg’s oratory appear just as significant as the central performances. The sense of disintegration between audience and performance is most palpable when Whitehead’s camera searches the auditorium to train in on a poet in the audience who, in a state of intoxication, interrupts Harry Fainlight’s reading by crying out the words “Love! Love!”‘ — bfi
the entire film
The Rolling Stones: Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing in the Shadow? (1966)
‘Peter Whitehead’s promotional film for the single was one of the first music videos.’ — Wikipedia
Charlie is my Darling (1966)
‘Whitehead catches the band while its feet are still touching the ground and while its members are still facing both the homey pleasures and the mounting terrors of a relatively un-insulated life, while their joy in making music and in having a limber jaunt together is still fresh and their success is still a lightly gilded serendipity. Whitehead, filming in black and white with agile, handheld cameras, gets some crucial things right. He wants to hear the Stones speak, and he keeps them aware of the camera, eliciting the unique mixture of the unguarded and the self-dramatizing that is the hallmark of cinema verité. The film captures some fine moments of performance, some revealing moments of offhanded intimacy, and others of purposeful reflection—and, over-all, it presents an astonishingly clear sense of the grandeur and decadence of Stones-ism.’ — The New Yorker
the entire film
Jeanetta Cochrane (1967)
‘More consciously experimental than Whitehead’s other works, this film draws on a variety of sources, including sequences of London shot while Whitehead was at the Slade School of Art, glimpses of the singer and model Nico, and footage of the psychedelic underground nightclub UFO. There is also on-screen text, a voice critiquing it, and music from Pink Floyd, at this point still fronted by Syd Barrett–Whitehead’s old painting friend from Cambridge. The track here, “Interstellar Overdrive”, was recorded by Whitehead before the band signed to EMI and is much more exciting and beat-driven than the version they would later record for the label. There is no explicit link between the content of the film and the Cochrane Theatre, which is is named after, but the theatre was used as a venue for the Spontaneous Festival of Underground Films in 1966.’ — letterboxd
The Rolling Stones: We Love You (1967)
‘The promotional film for the single was directed by Peter Whitehead. It included footage from recording sessions along with segments that re-enacted the 1895 trial of Oscar Wilde, with Jagger, Richards and Marianne Faithfull respectively portraying Wilde, Marquess of Queensberry, and Lord Alfred Douglas. Footage also appears of Brian Jones, apparently high on drugs with his eyes drooping and unfocused. The producer of Top of the Pops refused to show the film on that programme. A BBC spokesman stated the producer did not think it was suitable for the type of audience who watches Top of the Pops. He went on to say there was not a ban on it by the BBC, it was simply this producer’s decision.’ — Wikipedia
Tonite Let’s All Make Love in London (1967)
‘Peter Whitehead’s disjointed Swinging London documentary, subtitled “A Pop Concerto,” comprises a number of different “movements,” each depicting a different theme underscored by music: A early version of Pink Floyd’s “Interstellar Overdrive” plays behind some arty nightclub scenes, while Chris Farlowe’s rendition of the Rolling Stones’ “Out of Time” accompanies a young woman’s description of London nightlife and the vacuousness of her own existence. In another segment, the Marquess of Kensington (Robert Wace) croons the nostalgic “Changing of the Guard” to shots of Buckingham Palace’s changing of the guard, and recording act Vashti are seen at work in the studio. Sandwiched between are clips of Mick Jagger (discussing revolution), Andrew Loog Oldham (discussing his future) – and Julie Christie, Michael Caine, Lee Marvin, and novelist Edna O’Brien (each discussing sex). The best part is footage of the riot that interrupted the Stones’ 1966 Royal Albert Hall concert.’ — collaged
Excerpt (Eric Burdon & The Animals ‘When I was young’)
The Benefit of the Doubt (1967)
‘Based on a play by Peter Brook, entitled U.S., is a critical look at the devastation and inhumanity of war. Whitehead adds to the original footage gathered from television news about the Vietnam conflict, a conflict that bled in all its fullness and divided the world into peace and imperialists.’ — film affinity
Pink Floyd London ’66-’67 (1967)
‘Shot by movie maestro Peter Whitehead, this film features rare full length performances from the classic late 60’s Pink Floyd line-up at Sound Techniques London & material from the legendary ‘14 hour Technicolor Dream’ extravaganza in April ’67 at Alexandra Palace.’ — letterboxd
the entire film
The Fall (1969)
‘Between October 1967 and June 1968 he filmed in and around New York. Whitehead concentrated on some of the central figures of the civil-rights movement and counter-culture like Stokely Carmichael, Robert Lowell, Paul Auster, Arthur Miller and Robert Rauschenberg. He even managed to get behind the barricades of the radical students from Columbia University while police units insist on trying to break up the occupation of the campus. John Patterson (Vienna Festival Catalogue): ‘Whitehead was his own one-man film unit and was fond of asynchronous images and sounds, allowing new meanings and feelings to arise from the creative use of incongruity. The exemplar of his approach was the dizzyingly impressionistic essay-movie The Fall. Like many a 60s Englishman in America – Hockney, Boorman, Schlesinger, Peter Watkins – he came to the U.S. equipped with freshly-peeled eyeballs and saw a turbulent, vibrant, violent nation in ways Americans themselves often did not. The Fall is unlike any other record of the period – a time a lot like now, full of anti-war and civil-rights demonstrations and profound national self-examination – perhaps because its very obscurity has kept it fresh.’ — EH/iffr
the entire film
p.s. Hey. ** Shane Christmass, Hi. Oh, let me check the apartment. Sometimes Yury gets the mail and my stuff gets sidelined in some out of the way spot. But, in any case, a pdf would be great, thanks! Yeah, I think the Kanopy deal is only for North America, but I’m not 100% sure. ** _Black_Acrylic, Hi. Oh, you are too kind. I’ve heard of Alec Findlay, but I don’t think I know his work directly. That does sound like a very interesting, beautiful project. Have you discovered more about it? Is it something you could do? ** David Ehrenstein, I sort like waxworks just out the mild pleasure of nitpicking the differences, I guess. Paris has a pretty top waxworks, the Grévin, although if you don’t know French pop culture history, it’s like being in a building full of wax strangers. I think I saw ‘The Green Room’, but so long ago that I don’t remember it. Huh. I would have thought the Silent Theater would be occupied again by now. Wasn’t there talk of some offshoot of Cinefamily reopening it at some point? Weird/sad, as that place has always been a treasure in all of its guises. ** KK, Hey. Very happy that Blake was so helpful. His advice is great advice, and you can trust that if you gave it to you, he meant it. He can be tough on things he thinks are mediocre or shit. Fantastic! The New Yorker, whoa! Why not? Wouldn’t that be amazing? In the meantime, excellent news that you’ll be in SCAB! I love SCAB. It’s one of the top lit biggie enterprises for me. Big congrats to you and to its great editor, Dora! ** Bill, The plug was my fervent wish and sad but heartfelt attempt to astral project myself there. I used to know this weird guy who swore he astral projected himself into my bedroom all time. But that’s another story. I’m glad you like the Meijer book. She’s great, and I actually spent an afternoon with her when she was passing through Paris a few months ago, and she’s an awesome human too. Ha ha, right now I would trade all my ‘Sluts’ reading fans for the same number of the mechanical type, which shows hot it is here. Two more days and then, supposedly, liveability returns. ** Misanthrope, Happy the post hit your home. I think they were ultra-ultra-sincere. You shall! Count on it! ** Corey Heiferman, Hi, Corey. I forgot to mention last time that I watched your film/video and liked it a lot. I thought it was very effective and full of interesting decisions. Good one, man! Things are good with me other than, whinge alert, the fucking heat. Okay, now, that is a very cool, lucky break/opportunity re: the hook up with the documentary making couple. Curious to hear what fruit it bears. ** Right. The filmmaker Peter Whitehead died just a week or two ago, and that got me to exploring his work, and, as is usually the case in situations like that, I made a post about him and his work along the way. You’ve likely seen some of his stuff — his Rolling Stones films, perhaps — along the way. But here’s an overview of his oeuvre. See what you think. See you tomorrow.