Judge Matt Dicker's court is a white room with black curtains where the sun never shines.
"It may be that this is the art of tomorrow."
Cream was one of the best and most significant bands in rock and roll history. As much credit as they have received for the influence they had on the bands that would follow, they arguably deserve more. What is inarguable is that they deserve more than this atrocity of a production.
Facts of the Case
After the release of their seminal third album Wheels of Fire, the members of Cream (Jack Bruce, Eric Clapton, and Ginger Baker) had enough of each other and were ready to pack up their instruments and move on. The power trio agreed to a final farewell tour of the United States, with their final two shows coming at London's Royal Albert Hall, the last time the band would play together publicly until their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993. Originally filmed for the BBC, Cream: Final Concert captures the band playing ten songs in their final concert at the Royal Albert Hall, with brief interviews with each of the band members edited between the songs.
In Annie Hall, Woody Allen's character Alvy Singer relays the old joke "The food is terrible here, and such small portions." The same could be said about the release of Cream: Farewell Concert as it stood from its first showing on the BBC in 1969 until the special extended version was released in 2005. The film release restored the full versions of every song, several of which had been cut, and included a few songs that had been omitted entirely. Fans of Cream will be happy about the size of the portions on this release, but the food is just as terrible as ever.
Indeed, it breaks my heart to write this. The first song I ever learned to play on the guitar was an Eric Clapton song, and thanks to my baby-boomer father I knew the names Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker, and Jack Bruce before I knew George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson. But due to a combination of largely uninspired playing by a band clearly sick of playing together and a truly embarrassing filmmaking effort in every conceivable way, Cream: Farewell Concert tarnishes the legacy of one of the great bands in rock history.
Rock and roll had only just entered its adolescence by the time Cream was formed—indeed, Cream played a role in bringing rock into its adolescence—and many in the establishment still questioned its validity as an art form. Unfortunately, the filmmakers behind Cream: Farewell Concert not only question its value, but seem completely confused by the world they have stumbled onto. They resemble the worst kind of anthropology, metaphorically shouting "Look how different this culture is!" To their credit, they seem to be receiving the culture they have found in a positive manner, but their condescension and lack of appreciation of rock is baffling.
This lack of appreciation is evident in both the absurd narration and the moronic visuals. Both in the voiceovers and during the interviews, the speaker is intent on questioning the validity of rock music compared to classical music, and at one point dismisses the value of the electric guitar, referred to only partly in jest as "nothing but a jangling noise machine." Perhaps this was enlightening for the older BBC audience unfamiliar with bands that played as hard as Cream, but it is as absurd as a modern documentarian questioning the validity of the form compared to rock music and dismissing the value of a turntable as "nothing but a spinning disc machine."
The visuals are even more offending than the narration. The filmmakers clearly were aware of the drug culture surrounding Cream's music, and they make a ham-fisted effort to replicate that through their visuals, rapidly zooming in and out during solos and superimposing acid-inspired visual effects over the performance. The edits are nonsensical, making cuts during interview scenes that are completely out of context. The most embarrassing moment of all is during Ginger Baker's extended drum solo, when there are several shots of Ginger Baker wearing a completely different shirt. Ginger Baker was an extraordinary drummer, but changing shirts mid-song was not one of his talents. This carelessness reflects the entire attitude the production had toward Cream's music.
Unfortunately, Cream isn't entirely blameless in this fiasco. Had the band turned in a stellar final performance, the sins of the filmmakers could easily be overlooked. Yet all of the band's problems are evident on screen. Bruce and Baker had a well documented battle over the volume each would play, a battle resolved by the two continually playing louder than the other. This war of egos robbed Cream of any sense of dynamics, and the artistry of the music is lost as each tries to blow the other away. Clapton is not blameless either. In one of the few perceptive interview questions, the questioner asks Clapton if he ever uses stock phrases, and he responds in the affirmative and demonstrates some amazing riffs. Though every guitar player has these stock phrases at his disposal, Clapton, clearly bored with the entire affair and frustrated by his bandmates, resorts almost entirely to these stock phrases in his soloing. At times his greatness is evident, particularly in "Crossroads" and "Sitting on Top of the World," but it's clear that his heart had already moved on. As soon as Clapton was gone from Cream he once again became an innovative and thoughtful soloist, but through most of the farewell concert he is contentedly in neutral.
Presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio with 5.1 surround sound, Kino has done as good a job as possible with the production, faithfully producing the terrible video quality of the original film. The sound is muddled, but this was due to poor engineering of the original concert and a lack of concern for dynamics from the musicians. None of the technical faults lie with Kino, and it's hard to imagine the film looking or sounding any better than it does here.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As awful as this film is, the final concert—or at least the final concert for nearly four decades—of a band as brilliant as influential as Cream is a historic document, and one that deserves to be preserved, no matter how poorly that document was made. Kino has made the film look and sound as good as it is capable of looking and sounding considering the original production, and I'm glad to see the film remain widely available, despite its dramatic shortcomings.
Less than a decade later, Martin Scorsese and The Band would show the world what a great final concert would be, producing the magisterial The Last Waltz a film made by someone who truly loved the music and featuring a band happy to be playing together one final time. Everything that made that film wonderful is missing in Cream: Farewell Concert, and it's truly a shame that a band as monumentally great and important as Cream has this to show for their 1960s swan song.
Guilty of producing the most condescending rock doc in history.
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