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Secret Policeman's Film Festival lands in Hollywood

June 10, 2009 |  4:46 pm

Geldof_3_ Benefit concerts by comedians and rock stars over the last 30 years will be the subject of the five-week fest getting a start at the Egyptian Theatre. 

When Irish rocker Bob Geldof, the driving force behind some of the biggest all-star benefit concerts in history, including 1985's Live Aid for African famine relief efforts, was invited to participate in one of the shows that helped lay a foundation for those future landmark events, he was not instantly receptive.

"He was torrentially abusive towards me," recalled Martin Lewis, who asked Geldof to take part in the 1981 edition of the Secret Policeman's Ball on behalf of Amnesty International. "He said . . . 'It's a [bleeping] waste of time, they never do any [bleeping] good, you [bleeping] hippies are so self-righteous and pompous.'"

A still skeptical Geldof showed up and earnestly sang the Boomtown Rats' then-recent hit "I Don't Like Mondays," then sportingly joined in the all-star finale, a Sting-led reggae version of Bob Dylan's "I Shall Be Released."

"I believe that he caught the bug then," Lewis said last week in a quiet upstairs room at his favorite Hollywood deli. "He saw how the power of music could be harnessed, and then he ran with it, dwarfing anything any of the rest of us ever did."

That's the kind of transformation Lewis aims to highlight over the next five weeks with ”“the Secret Policeman’s Film Festival,, which opens today at American Cinematheque’s Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood. After a week of screenings of films documenting the 1970s and '80s "Secret Policeman" events, the festival shifts to the Paley Center for Media for four more weeks of screenings of all 25 concert films, documentaries and spin-off events shot over the last 30 years.

The same program will run in New York starting June 26. About three years before the original Secret Policeman's Ball in 1979, Amnesty International had begun stepping up efforts to heighten its profile. The deputy director of Amnesty's U.K. operation, Peter Luff, spotted a donation check signed "J. Cleese," which turned out to be from Monty Python founding member John Cleese. Luff tracked him down and asked if he might help spread the word.

Cleese suggested something similar, this time with comedians, to what ex-Beatle George Harrison had done with 1971's Concert for Bangladesh, which brought together many of rock's biggest stars to raise relief money for the war-ravaged region near India and Pakistan. (In recent years, comedian Eddie Izzard has taken up the torch from Cleese in keeping the Secret Policeman shows going.)

"When we did those first shows in '76, Amnesty had been going for 15 years, but nobody knew what it was," Lewis said. "It was just known to foreign policy wonks. . . . By 1982, in Britain this put Amnesty on the map in public consciousness; it built an awareness among young people, among regular folks. "

The catalyst that got musicians excited about joining in was Pete Townshend's solo acoustic performance at the 1979 show. He played "Pinball Wizard" from "Tommy" and a duet rendition of "Won't Get Fooled Again," accompanied by classical guitarist John Williams.

The film festival will cover a wealth of musical performances from Bruce Springsteen, Radiohead, the Police, Led Zeppelin's Robert Plant and Jimmy Page, Joni Mitchell, Carlos Santana, Sinéad O'Connor, Miles Davis and Alanis Morissette.

Comedy aficionados can catch routines featuring a very young Hugh Laurie with his then-partner Stephen Fry and two versions of Monty Python's Dead Parrot sketch, in addition to performances from Russell Brand, Alan Rickman and Jennifer Saunders ("Absolutely Fabulous").

Among other highlights of the film festival, which Lewis curated and produced in conjunction with American Cinematheque, the Paley Center for Media, Lincoln Center and the Mods & Rockers Film Festival:

* The U.S. version of 1982's "The Secret Policeman's Other Ball" film -- the one with Sting and Geldof -- that was directed by Julian Temple and which gave fledgling Miramax Films its first cinematic hit.

* An 11-hour marathon screening of "A Conspiracy of Hope." The 1986 all-star concert at Giants Stadium in New Jersey hasn't been seen since it aired live on MTV -- 23 years ago to the day that it will screen at the Egyptian.

* Uncut versions of films of the first six shows that Cleese and Lewis put together, which until now had only been seen in the U.K. (they were recently issued on DVD).

Beyond any individual highlights, Lewis hopes the festival will put across a certain spirit.

"Very famously, Bono gave a quote . . . 'I saw The Secret Policeman's Ball and it became a part of me. It planted a seed.' The question had been asked of him, 'What's the point: Aren't the audiences just coming for the entertainment? They don't really care about the cause.' He said, 'I got captivated. This is what happens. Our audience is smart. They get the message.'"

--Randy Lewis

Photo: Bob Geldof. Credit: Michael Putland
Video: Pete Townshend, "Pinball Wizard," from the 1979 Amnesty show