Cinematographer on rock documentaries
Thursday 09 September 2004
David Myers, a cinematographer noted for his fine contributions to
cinéma verité, won particular acclaim for his pioneering work on rock and pop documentaries.
David Myers, cinematographer: born Auburn, New York 8 May 1914; married; died Mill Valley, California 26 August 2004.
David Myers, a cinematographer noted for his fine contributions to cinéma verité, won particular acclaim for his pioneering work on rock and pop documentaries.
The classic Woodstock (1970), which captured on film the legendary four-day outdoor rock festival, was his most famous achievement and won an Oscar. Elvis on Tour (1972, Presley's last film) and Let the Good Times Roll (1973) were among his other successes, and his feature films included the first film made by the Star Wars director George Lucas, THX 1138 (1971). He was also part of the team that made another Oscar-winning documentary, Marjoe (1972), based on the life of Marjoe Gortner, a former child prodigy on the evangelist circuit.
Born in Auburn, New York, in 1914, Myers embarked on a career as a still photographer after seeing the work of Walker Evans in an exhibition at the New York Museum of Modern Art in 1938. He later described Evans's photographs as
distillations of the feelings and spirit of the times. They were cool but compassionate, a moral analysis of America in the Depression.
While working in an Antioch College student work programme with the Farm Security Administration in Washington, Myers shot a photo essay on federal civil servants. When the US entered the Second World War in 1941, he declared himself a conscientious objector. He was put to work planting trees for the US Forest Service, then worked at a mental hospital, where he photographed incoming patients.
After the war, he continued his career as a still photographer until 1954 when one of his friends, the photographer Imogen Cunningham, was asked to make a short film, and told the producers that she would not make it without Myers, thus starting his career in movies. He quickly displayed a unique flair for capturing real-life events on film, and in the 1960s he was considered one of the pioneers of the cinema verité movement.
His first major credit was Agnes Varda's Oncle Yanco ( Uncle Yanco, 1967), a short film that Varda made in San Francisco about one of her relatives who was a painter leading a hippie life on a barge. Myers co-photographed it with Didier Tarot.
As one of the five photographers working on Woodstock, directed by Michael Wadleigh, Myers was established as a master at capturing the atmosphere and artistry of such a momentous event. In three hours of footage, the movie distilled the essence of the occasion, the musicians featured including such superstars as Joan Baez, Joe Cocker, Arlo Guthrie, Richie Havens, Crosby, Stills and Nash, and The Who, the concert concluding with Jimi Hendrix's idiosyncratic and perception-changing rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner".
The 1969 concert became legendary not only for its display of talent, but for the warmth and camaraderie of the occasion. Despite greater crowds than expected, a torrential downpour, and the fact that food, water and medical supplies ran out, things went smoothly and there was no violence. The film, which includes myriad interviews as well as music, beautifully captures the peace and tolerance the concert promoted, though it originally received an "X" rating for its language, nudity and drug taking.
After Woodstock, Myers was much in demand for similar work, photographing some of the best music and concert documentaries, such as Mad Dogs and Englishmen (1971, with Joe Cocker and Leon Russell) and Let the Good Times Roll (1973), considered one of the most joyful of rock'n'roll musicals, with a host of rock icons such as Bill Haley, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Chubby Checker, Bo Diddley, Fats Domino, and the Shirelles. The opening sequence, in which the rock'n'roll duo Shirley and Lee perform the title song against flashes of hula hoops and automobiles, is jubilantly evocative.
Myers also photographed Cracked Actor: a film about David Bowie (1975, a BBC production about Bowie's drug-taking days), The Grateful Dead Movie (1977) and Shadows and Light (1980, with Joni Mitchell). He established a particular affinity with Bob Dylan, photographing not only the star's concert films Hard Rain (1976) and The Last Waltz (1978), but a feature film written and directed by Dylan entitled Renaldo and Clara (1978). It was a wildly overlong (232 minutes), repetitious and self-indulgent piece (starring Dylan and his wife as the title characters) that even Myers's craftsmanship and performances by Baez, Guthrie and Roberta Flack could not save.
Most of the feature films on which Myers worked were similarly offbeat and outside the mainstream of Hollywood product. The George Lucas science-fiction movie THX 1138 started life as a short film made at USC (the University of Southern California). Francis Ford Coppola was so impressed that he persuaded Warners to finance a full-length version and, since Myers had just shot Woodstock for the studio, he was assigned as cinematographer.
Other features photographed by Myers included another cult movie, Alan Rudolph's innovative and ambitious study of Hollywood, Welcome to LA (1977), John Alonzo's FM (1978), a surreal musical about a wild bunch of disc jockeys at a radio station, and Luis Valdez's Zoot Suit (1982), based on a play about ethnic gang warfare in 1942.
Neil Young, Human Highway (1982) was a bizarre and rarely shown venture which incorporated flying spaceships and songs into its tale about the dangers of nuclear plants. It was directed by Young and the actor Dean Stockwell, written by Stockwell, and starred Young and friends, including Russ Tamblyn and Dennis Hopper. Myers's last film was Dan Bessie's Hard Traveling (1985), a Depression-era story based on Alvah Bessie's novel Bread and a Stone.
Myers also made documentaries all over the world for the United Nations and for the National Geographic Society, but it is for his music documentaries that he will be remembered. "There was nobody who captured the essence of rock'n'roll and music more than Dave Myers," Mark Fishkin, the Director of the California Film Institute, said. "The way he filmed, moving around with the camera on his shoulder, was like a dance."
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