Pink Floyd at Pompeii

I bought the DVD of Pink Floyd: Live at Pompeii (The Director’s Cut) a year or so ago, but it managed to get filed away in a stack of kids DVDs and I’d forgotten I had it. I was looking through my DVDs last night, trying to find something better to watch than re-runs of […]

I bought the DVD of Pink Floyd: Live at Pompeii (The Director’s Cut) a year or so ago, but it managed to get filed away in a stack of kids DVDs and I’d forgotten I had it.

I was looking through my DVDs last night, trying to find something better to watch than re-runs of house that I’d already seen, and I found said DVD. Given that I was hopped up on goofballs for the throbbing pain behind my cheekbone (I admit it, it was an excuse. My tolerance for meds is so high that they don’t make it not hurt, they just make me not mind the hurt), I decided it was a perfect film to watch.

A little background. I saw this movie when I was about fourteen, at a midnight movie (remember midnight movies?) in Los Gatos, California. These were the days when midnight movies and rock concerts were a dope-smoker’s free for all, so no one cared if we lit up. People used to bring five foot tall bongs to these things. So it was a very stoned, very tripped out crowd. We’d either find an older brother who could drive, or we’d call the parents (mine, usually) who didn’t mind us being stoned.

At fourteen, I had only recently discovered rock music in a big way. Oh, I’ve been listening forever, my mother was a big pop music fan and played everything from 40’s jazz to current rock. But my big rock music breakthrough happened when I was eleven or twelve, when my brother picked up on Savoy Brown and Pink Floyd and I started to listen to Creedence Clearwater. After that we had the radio on all the time, and switched from spending our money on comic books to spending it on records and weed.

For a long time, we’d had no decent stereo; my parents were the first adults I knew who had a really good, audiophile component stereo system, but something in the receiver fried and my folks being my folks, they put it aside and ignored it for several years. But when my brother and I started wanting to buy records, we pressured ’em into fixing the system, and getting us some good headphones. And we started buying records – Pink Floyd, Genesis, Queen, Fleetwood Mac, all the kings of FM rock radio at the time. And we went from listening to songs to listening to musicians.

We were all struggling to become players at the time. My brother took up drums (mainly because I told him he looked like a drummer). I picked up guitar though I really saw myself as a bass player and meant to switch as soon as I could afford a bass. All our friends followed in the same vein, guitars and and bases. None of us could play worth a damn at the time, only a couple of us were in serious lessons. But it didn’t matter because we all started to grasp in small ways what the instruments sounded like and how they were played. We started caring that this sound was a bass and that, an organ, and this sound was a guitar with a wah-wah peddle. We made that leap serious listeners do, to hearing the parts as well as the whole.

So we cared a great deal, at that age, about seeing it.

There was no MTV; there was Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert, and a few other shows, most of which featured indifferently shot footage of bands on stage lip-syncing or promo band films (what would several years later turn into ‘music videos’.) The caremas were on the singers faces, not on the instruments. There was no place you could turn to really see what a band, playing live, looked and sounded like, unless you were going to see bands. And that (for me) would not happen for several years yet.

So I was hungry to see it. To see what it looked like when a guitarist played a scorching lead or when a drummer played a fill.

So one night in 1974, or 1975, or somewhere around there, we noticed that our local art cinema had started running midnight movies. And a film billed then as simply Pink Floyd was one of the first showings.

We saved up our allowance and meager chore-and-lawnmoawing money, pooled it, and bought a dime bag of weed. I do not recall who drove us, nor who picked us up. But I remember getting into the theater – and old-fashioned theater with velvet curtains and velvet seats, not yet trashed as it would be three or four years later from these shows – and being greeted by a cloud of pot smoke. It felt like home, and we picked seats, loaded my pipe (because I was always the one who was prepared, with pipe and lighter), and proceeded to get what was, for us, mind-numbingly stoned.

The movie was a revelation. It was, literally, like a religious experience for us. After months and months of trying to play, listing, trying to visualize, trying to grasp what rock music looked like, there it was. Wild, long-haired men, looking intense, soulful, and half-mad, standing in a vast, empty amphitheater surrounded by huge walls of mysterious, almost threatening equipment. Cameras panning slowly, wind blowing. The drummer was pounding the drums with intensity I couldn’t have imagined up ’til that moment, the guitar players were off in their own words, hands flying, eyes far away.

It would not surprise me, could I look back, to see my mouth hanging open, to see myself almost drooling. I was stunned, mesmerized. These were my heros, my teenage demi-gods, and what they were doing looked and sounded cooler than I could ever have imagined.

It defined, in my mind’s eye, what rock music looked like. The way they stood, the way they looked, the way they moved. The way the drummer played. If I visualize, to this day, a truly cool rock band, it isn’t my friends, it isn’t the first bands I saw live, it’s Pink Floyd. That’s how deep the impression stuck. This is how we all tried to look. I see pictures now of my brother playing drums, and it was clear he was going for Nick Mason’s look, tank top, head bands and sunglasses. Ian may not ever have been as good as Nick Mason, but he looked like him when he was playing.

I do not know how many times I saw that movie. I was always stoned, and with all the dozens of times I saw other midnight movies – yesshows, 200 motels, samurai trilogy, allegro non tropo, and dozens more – it blurs together into a stoned haze.

I haven’t seen it since. I would have been sixteen or seventeen the last time. After I had my own car, I could go get stoned whenever I wanted, I could go off to party with friends, I could go to girls houses. My brother’s band was, by then, gigging , so I would often go with them to lug gear. When I did go to midnight movies it was mostly Rocky Horror.

So last night, it was with a sense of great nostalgic importance that I put on this DVD.

Now, i read all this later after watching the movie – watching it with a a mixture of pleasure and confusion, even revulsion. But it seems there are three different versions of this movie.

The movie was originally made in 1972 – partially filmed at Pompeii Stadium, with the rest filled in with shots done in a studio in Paris (some green-screen and some with a weird array of lights behind them). It ran about an hour.

In 1974, it was re-edited, with interviews and studio footage (which looked like it was from the recording of Dark Side of the Moon though it was actually staged for the movie, since Dark Side of the Moon was mostly done by this time). It had a running time of around 80 minutes, likely padded out for US theatrical release (we like things a standard length here). This was the version I saw so many times so long ago.

The DVD release, however, is a Director’s Cut, with some twelve extra minutes added, plus many other changes. This is the only version you can get on DVD as far as I can tell.

Here’s where things get problematic.

Now, i can’t fairly compare the Director’s Cut to the ’74 release, not having seen that for a good two and a half decades. But what the director did was to add extra interview footage (which is ok – the original interviews are cool, and totally iconic, the source of send-ups from spinal tap to the ruttles to SNL to likely dozens of other things. So more of them is good). However he also decided that the film looked dated, and that it needed to be updated with ‘modern’ effects. So the live performance sections have been edited together with CGI bits; space ships, planets, fly-vers of landscape vaguely resembling Pompeii. There are animations of lava poring through the streets of sim-Pompeii, and some other footage of volcanos blowing and modern landscapes obliterated by ash.

The non-interview additions are, in a word, horrific. The titles have been changed, the visual flow of the film has changed. And the modern additions are completely different in tone, texture and visual style. They leap out at you as something disruptive and wrong. The beginning of the original film was striking, a view from above the stadium, first on a time-lapse of a vast amount of gear being set up, and then, as the spacey, slow beginning of Echos starts, the camera zooms in with glacial slowness, so slowly you’re barely aware of the movement. It’s absolutely brilliant if you can hang with the pace. Now the firm stars with a swoop through space, fading in to the band in the stadium only at the end of the super-slow zoom.

From there, all of the carefully timed cuts and slow, slow pans around the band and disrupted by being inter-cut with the modern insert footage, distracting and disrupting every single bit of live footage in the movie.

Understand, the original, the live footage, was absolutely some of the best live band footage I’ve ever seen, and brilliantly edited. The original work was great. It needs nothing added. Sound wise, picture wise, it’s stunning. This was a working band at an artistic high-point, performing together perfectly. It stands alone as one of the definitive music films of the era. And I know this because we’re lucky enough to have the original sixty minute release – sans effects and disruptions, sans changes and re-edits – as an extra on the DVD. It stands alone, and it’s amazing.

So what’s been done to the Director’s Cut version of this movie is simply appalling.

I can’t fairly compare the sixty minute version to the ’74 version I saw so many times; I simply can’t remember. I loved it then, and I like seeing the documentary style ’74 footage now. I’d like to see the ’74 version, and I’d like to have the ’74 footage as a separate documentary stand-alone. BUt what I do not want to see – ever again – is the Director’s Cut version.

I want to find the director, Adrian Maben, and I want to hurt him a lot. He’s fucked up something that was artistically brilliant, and something that was a significant thing in my childhood.

I hate it when people go back and try to fix classic things. They don’t, 95% of the time, need changing, and can almost never be improved by modernizing. Invent new things, don’t go back and ruin old ones.

5 thoughts on “Pink Floyd at Pompeii”

  1. Don Pancho’s, Albuquerque, 1984-1987. Pink Floyd:LiP, The Wall, Heavy Metal, Fritz the Cat, 2001, The Song Remains the Same, Rocky Horror.
    Enough smoke to choke a horse, good times…

  2. The thing is, it’s worth getting just to see the original original version, just play that and send it back. That extra is 60 minutes of just-as-good-as-you-remember bliss. And holy fuck do they look young.

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