At one point and Philip Dolin and Molly Bernstein’s “The Show’s the Thing,” the UK concert promoter Henry Goldsmith lays out the way concerts used to be run – in England specifically, the rules that governed Vaudeville acts of the 1920s still applied well into the 1960s where a show couldn’t be played any time other than from 6 to 9:30 at night, any individual act would only be allowed on stage for 20 minutes and you were bound to have jugglers for interstitial entertainment. Not that America was all that different, but ironically, it was the British invasion that changed things on both sides of the pond as savvy promoters realized that musical acts could play their full albums, were willing to tour beyond one city and may even like a few fancy lights as part of the presentation of their show.
Such epiphanies are captured as if happening for the first time as the era’s top promoters recount the early days of the concert business in Dolin and Bernstein’s engaging history that suggests that what was going on behind the scenes was just as compelling as any of the fun that was happening on stage. Criss-crossing America and taking a field trip abroad, the zippy history visits with such bigger-than-life personalities as Mike and Jules Belkin in Cleveland, Ron Delsener in New York, Don Law in Boston, Larry Magid in Philadelphia and Arny Granat in Chicago as they reflect on bringing acts such as Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, and Deep Purple to the States and how an agent named Frank Barsalona, who learned the circuit firsthand as a child yodeling star, eventually established a regional system in which promoters worked with each other to bring the same hot ticket from one coast to another while operating their own unique geographical fiefdoms. With their names above even the acts they gave top billing to, promoters such as Bill Graham in San Francisco had the power to innovate the concert experience and make or break new acts, as musicians ranging from Jon Bon Jovi and Carlos Santana colorfully attest.
“The Show’s the Thing” channels the same rock ’n’ roll spirit that guided this side of the music industry as it began to take shape, drawing on spry animation and rare concert footage to add to the already lively stories being told by those who not only survived but thrived in the Wild Wild West environment. As Dolin and Bernstein explained just before their latest film premiered at DOC NYC, part of the film’s energy came from the fact that few had ever asked these important architects of rock history to share their experiences and the filmmakers spoke about how they went about piecing together a story from this often overlooked part of show business.
How did this come about?
Philip Dolin: Molly directed a film called “Deceptive Practice” about the magician Ricky Jay and in the course of making that film, we got to know Ricky Jay’s manager Winston Simone, who’s been in the business for a long, long time. He knew of these promoters, this loose-knit group of really interesting characters that created the concert business, and he always thought it would be a good film, so he mentioned it to us. We didn’t really know the story when we started, but we had three executive producers who all knew these guys and revered them as great showmen of the kind we won’t see again. So we started the journey through actually interviewing them and reading and trying to find out what the story was.
You’re going all over the place geographically. What was it like to build up those interviews?
Philip Dolin: The first year we were working on it sporadically while we were doing other projects, so for instance, we had a film at the Cleveland Film Festival and I’m from Cleveland, so I grew up hearing the Belkin Brothers’ name all the time, and when we went to Cleveland for that festival, we met the Belkins and we interviewed them. They showed us their photographs and their scrapbook and maybe a few months later, we’d go to L.A. to do a project and we’d interview Irv Zucherman, who lives [there], so it was that way for a while. Suddenly, we had done maybe a dozen interviews and then…
Molly Bernstein: And we’re starting to really understand the story at this point.
Philip Dolin: Right. The more you interview people, the more you formulate what the narrative was of these regional clubs that people started and of Frank Barsalona, who found these young people and got them together to create a concert tour, so we’d go from one of Frank’s cities to another of Frank’s cities [because] everybody had the story of meeting Frank and how great he was and how instrumental he was in their careers. One of executive producers is an agent by the name of Steve Martin, who always called this “The seeds of the Frank tree.”
Molly Bernstein: And also it was interesting how they all really started with small businesses. It was their own money, a lot of it was handshake deals. It’s just so the opposite of what the music industry is today.
Philip Dolin: It’s like an unknown chapter in rock ’n’ roll. And there’s something in the personality of these people — they love music and they really love putting on shows. Whenever any of the promoters talked about selling out [a concert], they were so excited. They’re driven to find talent and put them in a venue where they know they can sell out and that’s what they love to do. Bill Graham was also monumental and everyone knew Bill Graham. That was another thing.
Molly Bernstein: And Winston is very close to Ron [Delsener, who ran the New York concert circuit] and has been for many years, so we just thought it would be great to see a promoter in action, especially someone who’s been doing it for so long.
Philip Dolin: And that’s the thing about Ron. Everyone who takes the stage in New York knows Ron Delsener because he’s been at every show for the past 50 years, so [these promoters are] such well-known characters in their little worlds. When you walk into Jones Beach with Ron Delsener, it’s like the king is walking in.
Beyond the interviews, was figuring out how to illustrate this story a challenge, especially with music rights considerations?
Molly Bernstein: Yeah, but in a way that’s one of the most fun parts, diving into all this material and getting to screen all this old performance footage and finding things. It is complicated in terms of the final licensing, but that’s so much why this is a film and not a book because we’re able to use a lot of those materials – posters and tickets and things like the Super 8 footage of David Bowie in Cleveland. We just interviewed Jules Belkin and he told us he promoted his first concert there, so we just started looking online and came across the incredible Super 8 footage that just a fan took in the audience. We tracked him down and he was happy for us to use that footage, so things like that are just so wonderful.
Philip Dolin: And then we met Emily Rothchild, who was an NYU student at the time of the Fillmore East. She became the unofficial photographer [there] and documented that entire period, so we featured close to a hundred of her images in this film. She was backstage and it’s really interesting because when you look through rock ’n’ roll photography, it’s always the musician onstage. Very few people have [scenes of] people closing the curtains backstage or people serving the crew backstage, and she had all that stuff and that’s now a special part of the film.
Molly Bernstein: And she also filmed 16mm, and she was on the stage filming Jimi Hendrix and Jethro Tull — all of these acts of the day, so it was just great to work with her.
Philip Dolin: In fact, she tells a very funny story where she would film every show and Led Zeppelin gets up there and she doesn’t like them, so she goes out and she doesn’t film Led Zeppelin. And now [she says] her financial situation might be different today if she had. [laughs] Part of the fun of the film is looking at rock ’n’ roll as a historical artform, and she mastered it.
This is loosely attached to a chronology, but is arranged into vignettes to some extent to follow the fun. Was it difficult to organize and were there stories that may not have fit into what you had?
Molly Bernstein: Yeah, we actually had tons of stories. That was one of the hardest parts of editing this down. We initially started out with a different structure where it was mini-biographies of each of the promoters and their territories, which were all fascinating because they were all great characters who had wonderful stories about how they got into the business and what they were doing before, but it just didn’t work as a film. We realized that we wanted to tell a larger story, so part of our process was figuring out a semi-chronological narrative that gives you a basic arc of the explosion of the concert industry.
Philip Dolin: Yeah, having to explain what concerts were like before — how they were like these variety shows with [stops in] just one or two cities. But it’s a film of stories and I have a feeling that this isn’t something they’ve gotten to share that much, so there were a great number of really good scenes that were cut, which we’ll hopefully get to show as some kind of a bonus at some point.
You really tie it together with some animated interludes. How did you find the style for that?
Philip Dolin: We knew Gary Leib, an animator who did the animation for “American Splendor” and he’s also a musician who had a career in a New Wave band called Rubber Rodeo. He is brilliant and he’s just a conduit of images from that time period, so we would watch the film and talk about things and he would say, “I think I could do something here, I think I could do something there.” When we had gotten some archival footage that showed people inside the Electric Factory, [with people] playing on the jungle gym, walking around and dancing, at one point the camera moves towards a woman and she opens her mouth like to smile, and I would’ve never thought of this, but Gary said, “I can animate that and go in her mouth.” And we just thought, “Wow.”
Molly Bernstein: We used that as almost a dual transition, like a tunnel almost [from one scene to another].
Philip Dolin: Yeah, so he went into her psychadelicized mind. As is the case with a lot of projects, when there was a lot of time, he did very complicated animations and when there was a very short amount of time, he did [something] simpler but just as effective. It was a real joy every time we’d get a file from him and [there’s] a real collaborative spark of joy when somebody comes up with something that you would’ve never thought of.