Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
In 1971 Ravi Shankar asked George Harrison to help him put on something that had never been done before, an all-star charity rock concert for the disaster victims of floods and famine in East Pakistan. Harrison spent a couple of months arranging for a knockout pair of concerts in New York on August 1. The plan was for the proceeds from the concert to go to charity, with a follow-up record album and movie to sweeten the pot.
We never really get a full accounting of how much aid money reached the stricken region, but Harrison's show definitely put Bangladesh on the map. The Concert for Bangladesh was the first of hundreds of blockbuster charity shows that did good while becoming media circuses.
In our UCLA dorm rooms in early 1972, the ratio of residents to The Concert for Bangladesh record albums was about .500 . Even more interesting was the much-ballyhooed concert film that premiered down at the almost-new National General Theater chain's National Theater in Westwood. Tickets were $3. Luckily, Savant was friends with Clark Dugger who had gotten himself a job as an usher ... I remember bringing my girlfriend in from our home town for the show. Woodstock had been one of our best dates.
By modern standards The Concert for Bangladesh isn't filmed with a great deal of finesse. It's all shot in flat 16mm from rather static angles and doesn't have the camera overkill coverage or crane shots we're used to seeing now. The 16mm negative was blown up to an incredibly grainy 70mm, creating an image with a grain structure that looks like millions of ping-pong balls. In the theater the only real colors were brown, amber and gold, probably due to the stage lighting.
But the music was great. This was before the Dolby era but the National's auditorium was ringed by at least sixteen speakers, each handling a discrete track. That much the filmmakers had learned from Michael Wadleigh's film, and when Ravi Shankar's sitar warmed up the house came alive. I remember that the National's projectionist (a sweet, ancient little man who probably had seniority in the then-powerful projectionist's union) wore ear soundguards all night long, he hated the music so much! The Concert for Bangladesh was the theater's first 70mm engagement and there was no way he could handle the heavy reels, so the theater engineered an overhead apparatus to winch the reels from the rewind bench to the projectors.
But back to the film. The Concert for Bangladesh has an edge on the Beatles' earlier Let it Be in that we can see for ourselves that the performers are having the time of their lives and that the stage camaraderie is no put-on. Ravi Shankar and his sidemen practically radiate warmth, Harrison seems relaxed most of the time, and Billy Preston and Ringo Starr are all smiles. Insecure Eric Clapton and Bob Dylan were both reportedly coming out of long absences from live performing - Clapton seems cautious but pleased, and even Bob ("I may go onstage, I may not") comes off as charmed by the situation. Also involved but a little more on the cool side is Leon Russell. 1
The concert film is on Disc one; note that the majority of the songs follow a spiritual theme:
Bangla Dhun Wah-Wah, My Sweet Lord, Awaiting on You All, That's the Way God Planned It, It Don't Come Easy, Beware of Darkness, While My Guitar Gently Weeps, Jumpin' Jack Flash and Young Blood medley, Here Comes the Sun, A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall, It Takes a Lot to Laugh It Takes a Train to Cry, Blowin' In the Wind, Just Like a Woman, Something, Bangla Desh.
A big part of the group feeling on stage is that most of the performers don't take turns - they're all on stage for the majority of the numbers, contributing to the ensemble. This means that Harrison has perhaps three bass players going at one time. Phil Spector is on-site (in what capacity I don't know) and several interviewees in the featurettes compare the effect to Spector's famous Wall of Sound.
The concert makes its impact and wisely doesn't go on too long. It's only 95 minutes long, so I wonder how long the concerts were in real time.
Disc two contains enough extras to thoroughly fill-in the facts for readers like Savant who weren't readers of Rolling Stone magazine. An interview documentary hits up some of the producers and advisors who express how informal the whole arrangement was, with camera people making it up as they went along. Poor George Harrison is seen calmly doing news interviews with skeptical reporters. At one point he predicts that the record album might be ready for sale just a few days after the concert. Farther on we learn how Shankar and Harrison's charitable concept was received by the record companies that controlled the recordings of the varied artists in the show ... none of them intended to do anything without their profit being first priority. This prompted Harrison to go on a national talk show (we get some excerpts) complaining that a humanitarian effort was being overrun by greed.
Two more shorter edited pieces look at the making of the film and the making of the record album; none of them get deeply into the realities of the job. The film-side show mentions blowing up the 16mm film and makes a mess of the explanation. It wasn't a 'first'. Don Weed and Linwood Dunn at Film Effects of Hollywood did the 70mm enlargement the same way they did Woodstock but without the expensive multi-screen effects. Yes, when you chop off 35% of the image and blow it up that big, the quality does take sort of a nose-dive. Hoyt Yeatman and I saw Dunn's demo of the process in 1974 when visiting Mr. Dunn to get effects tips for our UCLA films.
We are also given as extras a few alternate and unseen performances. There were two shows and Bob Dylan did some different material in each. So he has three 'outtake' songs and Leon Russell, I believe, has a third: If Not for You, Come On in My Kitchen, Love Minus Zero, No Limit.
Also included are some still montages and artwork concepts. There is a second, more expensive version of the disc set available called the Limited Deluxe Edition.
The transfer is fine. It's still golden-hued and not particularly adept visually, but the aspect ratio is a sensible 4:3 and the 16mm isn't any more grainy here than in any other show shot under like conditions. I once saw an old Thorn-EMI VHS of Bangladesh that was just terrible - this transfer makes it look like it had Color by Crayola. The handsome packaging contains a UNICEF card. It uses the show's icon image of hungry child over an empty food bowl. I have to confess that seeing it reminds me of a savage National Lampoon magazine satire that cruelly mocked Harrison's effort - the image of the hungry child was cast in milk chocolate, and had a bite taken out of it!
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Concert for Bangladesh rates:
Supplements: Three docus, unused performances (four), stills, artwork
Packaging: Two discs in folding plastic and card holder in card sleeve
Reviewed: November 15, 2005
1. A note from John Mastrocco, 11.19.05: Glenn, In your review of The Concert for Bangladesh you were wondering how long the actual concerts were, as the film is only 95 minutes. As one of the attendees at the afternoon concert, I remember it running something over 2 hours long. How much longer I couldn't say as in those days I did not wear a watch. How long the evening concert lasted I have no idea.
And you are spot-on about the musicians enjoying themselves. The entire audience in Madison Square Garden participated in that feeling. And there was also respect and reverence shown by the audience. When George asked us to please be quiet during Ravi Shankar's set, you could literally hear a pin drop. This is not some trick of the microphones or the editors playing with the source material - it was real and it was simply amazing. (BTW, I remember him playing more than the one song he is given on the CD and DVD. But I admit that time and my unfamiliarity with Ragas at the time could be playing tricks on my memory.)
I have never seen the film, nor do I expect to buy the DVD. But it's a concert I will always remember. Regards, John Mastrocco, Oklahoma City
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson