Today on the Rock & Roll is a State of Mind blog, we travel back in time to 1967 and take a look at Privilege, an obscure film that was part of the the rock & roll landscape. Of course, when I think of rock films from 1967, the first one that comes to mind is the Bob Dylan documentary, Don't Look Back but there were some rock films that were popular at the time of their release but over the years have become obscure relics of the 1967 pop scene. One such film is Privilege; a film which has elements that make it particularly relevant to today's musical and societal culture.
Although this film has seem to have disappeared into the well of time itself, Privilege is an early classic within the rock film genre that is still relevant with regards to the modern world we live in. The film is constructed as a narrated documentary which is set in 1970's England and is centered around pop singer, Steven Shorter, portrayed by Paul Jones, who was the lead singer of the British Invasion pop combo, Manfred Man during the mid-sixties.
Steven Shorter is (much like Elvis Presley who was controlled by Col. Tom Parker) a prisoner of his success. He is manipulated by a team consisting of his manager, public relations rep, an executive from his record label and his money manager. Shorter’s name and face are used to promote product brands, shopping outlets, groovy nightclubs and various media outlets; all of which establish Shorter as a viable consumer brand. An artist named Vanessa Ritchie (as played by one of Jean Shrimpton; one of the most celebrated figures of the Swinging London fashion scene) enters the picture when she is hired to paint Shorter’s portrait and Shorter, who is beginning to have a mental breakdown due the constant demands on him to live the life of a pop star who is nothing more than a money machine to those around him. As Richie paints his portrait, Shorter exhibits his ongoing confusion regarding his life of isolation as an iconic pop star.
From Wikipedia: “Demands upon Shorter's time and energy increases. He is asked to film a commercial for the country's apple growers, hoping to convince citizens to eat a disproportionately large number of apples to make up for a surplus supply. More ominously, the collective churches of England strike an arrangement with the government and Shorter's empire to turn him into a messianic leader that will boost church attendance and a sense of national unity. An image change is announced in advance of a huge stadium concert, where he will publicly repent, no longer perform in handcuffs, and will espouse religious themes in his songs. Shorter's equilibrium becomes even more shaky; at a picnic where lobster is served, he absurdly orders hot chocolate to drink, and everyone present in turn orders hot chocolate as well, demonstrating he will be enabled at all times. The stadium rally has a record attendance, and features militarized performance from various nationalist organizations. A firebrand preacher, Reverend Jeremy Tate, tells the assembled crowd they will be handed cards reading We Will Conform, rails against the perceived post-war apathy in the country, and demands they repeat the words at his prompting, which they follow. Shorter and his band take the stage, with the band members wearing costumes and assuming poses reminiscent of Nazi Germany. Disabled citizens are given preferential seating to the stage, in the hopes Shorter's music will heal them. When Shorter later watches footage of the rally on television, he is disgusted at the display, and goes on a furniture-breaking tear. He also reveals to Vanessa that contrary to the publicity that his old show was just an act, he bears real scars and bruises from being legitimately assaulted by the mock policemen in the act. Shorter's record company holds a formal event to give him an achievement award and profess theirs and the nation's love for him. Shorter finally breaks down, inarticulately declaring disgust for the public that cannot see past his charade, and asking to be seen as an individual and not the inflated deity he has been presented as. After stunned silence, the public reacts angrily, and his popularity immediately plummets. Andrew Butler announces his immediate resignation from the Shorter organization, as it is no longer lucrative for his investors. The narrator states that to placate the now-hateful masses, and to preserve the viability of the still extant businesses that carry his name, Shorter's music will be banned from airplay, and he shall not be allowed to speak or perform publicly again. In postscript, the narrator reveals that there is little left of Shorter's career, and over archival footage of him (with the soundtrack removed, of course...), declares, It is going to be a happy time in England, this year in the future.”
From The 50-year-old British film with a chilling warning for today: Peter Watkins’ Privilege, a 2017 article the bfi.org.uk site: “Pop, power, populism and propaganda… How Peter Watkins’ futuristic satire Privilege predicted a time when mass media would be subverted to the needs of those in power…Privilege comes as a startling warning of how the influence of popular media can be exploited for the needs of a powerful, malevolent few. Its prescience is stark half a century after its release because of its uncanny prediction of how mass media could be used as such effective propaganda…film clearly still has things to say about the political mechanisms of today. While re-watching the film recently, the news broke that Kanye West had controversially met Donald Trump at Trump Tower. Such a meeting was deemed to be shocking given Trump’s various political positions. Yet Privilege tells of such alignments 50 years before the sort of fame that stars like Kanye experience became truly possible. Watkins’ film shows that this type of manipulation of popularity, accelerated in the era of the internet, germinated in the postwar years….
…The fact that Shrimpton herself rose to fame through being a different type of cipher – a projection of the beauty industry through advertisement modelling – plays further into the overall irony of Watkins’ documentary style. His outraged, Oliver Postgate-like voice comments on the proceedings, rather like Adam Curtis’s voiceovers. Such a technique frames the drama in a way that has had a clear influence on many documentary films in spite of Watkins working in fiction. This blurring is again apt for our times, in the era of ‘alternative facts’, ‘fake news’ and the very destabilising of factual perception. Watkins, however, is aiming such a displacement back upon the establishment in the same way as several other filmmakers did from this era, finding a more powerful and uncomfortable truth behind a fictional retelling. Through this abuse of fame, Shorter himself is no longer a person but a cipher of power, an influential piece of propaganda reaching wide numbers of young people. Fame destroys his individual identity in spite of being falsely built upon it. Culture is hijacked by market, capital and political personas, almost dissolving the human at the heart of the celebrity. All that is left is a husk, puppeteered out for whatever use is deemed necessary by his funders. Watkins plays this idea to the extreme, portraying Shorter as both a prisoner of his managers (his early performances have him genuinely and physically abused on stage to get the best performance from him) and his own success. He’s desperately trying to escape back to some semblance of self. This reasserts itself through a friendship and relationship with a photographer, Vanessa, played by Jean Shrimpton...
...Privilege’s most unsettling moment, especially in the context of today, comes in Shorter’s performance at a televised evangelical rally. When his managers coerce him into ultimately representing the opinion and desires of the state church, he performs at a spectacular event with music, fireworks and lights. In an age where the recently elected president of the USA arguably came to power with the help of this same type of propaganda rally, Privilege gives such occasions (and the subsequent inauguration) a disturbing sense of déjà vu… As the reverend at the heart of Privilege’s political rally proudly declares to the adoring crowd: National cohesion has become unimportant to us. We must fight this. We must… We will conform! Here all political dissent and questioning is banned and now punished through a violent survival challenge. It is for this reason, this highlighting of the method in Privilege…that Watkins is the most disturbingly prescient filmmaker of the 1960's.”
Excerpts from a 2008 review on the Pop Matters website:
"Privilege, an early masterpiece by celebrated auteur Peter Watkins, invites us to consider the possible implications of a fully co-opted popular culture. What if what we like, what we enjoy, is no longer our own prerogative, but rather is imposed upon us from above? What if we no longer have any choice about what we enjoy? And what if, when we are asked to conform to this standard, we respond in wholehearted agreement? In considering these questions, back in the early days of the cultural revolutions of the mid-1960s, this odd film examines the potential repercussions of a mechanical, top-down approach to culture. As the popular becomes ever more closely associated with profit, and as this profit becomes more attractive to the powers that be (whether in government, in industry, or, as Privilegea goes so far as to consider, the church), pop artistry is fused to the designs of the controlling minority in power. And so, pop star Steven Shorter (played by Herman’s Hermits lead singer Paul Jones) finds himself the most popular performer in history, loved by all, and controlled (his every move and gesture prescribed) by a cabal of stuffed shirts representing the hegemonic classes...Peter Watkins’ Privilege is a pushy vehicle for the examination of these kinds of ideas about the dangers of social control, of a pervasive false consciousness that blinds the people to the reality of their situation."
From the Peter Watkins website:
Reaction to Privilege when it was released in 1967
"Privilege was heavily attacked for being hysterical when it first appeared in Britain, with particularly unpleasant reviews for the acting of Jean Shrimpton and Paul Jones. The fact that everything which was shown or implied in the film came about in Britain in subsequent years - especially during the nationalistic period of Margaret Thatcher - has done nothing to change the status of ‘Privilege’ as another marginalized film. Although it was attacked at the time for “copying the style of TV”, it is noticeable that many of the elements of this film - use of colour, mobility, structure - have since been absorbed by mainstream feature filmmaking. At least one scene from Privilege appears to have been directly copied and used in Stanley Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange. The national cinema circuit in the UK, J. Arthur Rank, refused to show the film for something to do with what they deemed its immoral nature. Universal Pictures withdrew the film after brief screenings in a few countries, and the film has been rarely shown since - very occasionally on TV."
Newspaper Reviews 1967
‘Watkins has produced not so much a film as a hotchpotch of film and television - and it simply doesn’t come off.’: (The Guardian)
‘The emotional ambivalence in this film is even more marked than it was in ‘The War Game’. Both movies seem to me to luxuriate in images of the violence they believe they are indicting ... ‘Privilege’ is not only about hysteria; it is itself hysterical ... In its ranting simplifications, it may well be procuring a conformity as repugnant as the one it is claiming to reject.’ (The Sunday Telegraph)
‘Pop goes the Watkins ... Misanthropy is one thing, monotony another; and watching ‘Privilege’ is rather like watching a man repeatedly laboring to raise a heavy hammer, whirling it round his head, and bringing it crashing down on his own hand.’ (Spectator)
‘Nowhere does the film admit any inherent social or cultural resilience in the human race, not even to the point of acknowledging that in show business, which is the setting of the story, teenage taste still has an odd way of favoring professionalism, artistry and certain qualities of warmth and vitality and humor. ‘Privilege’ is, indeed, a dispirited view of us and our future, and a strange first film - alternatively arresting and ridiculous - for Peter Watkins.’ (The Financial Times)
‘The Government is Coalition and the slogan is “We Will Conform.” No we won’t, and you should know that by now, Mr. Watkins.’ (The Sun)
‘What hangs around Watkins’ neck is sheer lack of professionalism: his film is a mass of poor scripting, inept acting, and directionless, irrelevant camerawork and editing ... the television-vérité style that Watkins has clung to so obsessively throughout his short career has now reached its ultimate condemnation ... Everything in ‘Privilege’ goes wrong, and one can do little but catalog the failures ... For ‘The War Game’ the technique was just about as hollow, but the film’s subject gave it the compulsive fascination of a nightmare; with ‘Privilege, the result is mere farce.’ (British Film Institute Monthly Film Bulletin)
‘Privilege’ ... is more absorbing in its failure than a good many films are that fulfill their purpose.’: (Washington Post)
‘Privilege’, a cruelly compelling, often brilliant film ... the real star ... is director Peter Watkins, only 31, who must get credit for this acidly anti-establishment film ... the quasi-documentary touches he mastered on BBC money are sharply and effectively in evidence. And in his first full-length film, he shows he can use color with startling success. No doubt about it: Watkins is on his way.’ (Playboy)
‘Absurd? It is set in mythical British 1970, which removes it from now. But a thoughtful look at today’s super-adoration of pop-music singers makes director Watkins’ chilling premise more believable ... ‘Privilege’ is at times brutal and offensive. It is not a happy film. But it is always brilliant.’ (The Christian Science Monitor)
While primarily a blues band, The Hideaways are not interested in rehashing traditional blues styles with religious devotion; nor are they interested in playing the same old noodling guitar hero blues. When it comes time to make music, The Hideaways show up as themselves; they play what they like and they "do the thing without trying to be the thing." While acknowledging the strong influences of the blues artists they love, they channel elements of old R&B, country, rockabilly, instrumental surf and jazz which infiltrates their sound; all the while delivering a rapid-fire performance that has the energy and drive of a live show by the Ramones and The Clash.
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