The '60s: Not just a decade but a way of life
If the 1960s didn't exist, Martin Lewis would've had to invent them. The maestro behind the 9th annual Mods & Rockers Film Festival in Los Angeles, a two-week event that concludes next week, Lewis is steeped in all things '60s. A protege of Beatles publicist Derek Taylor, Lewis has worked with Paul McCartney on various post-Beatles projects, produced the DVD edition of "A Hard Day's Night" and launched "The Secret Policeman's Ball" benefit series for Amnesty International, which brought together '60s British comic talent (including alumni from Monty Python and Beyond the Fringe) with such rock icons as Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Pete Townshend, Phil Collins and Sting.
Lewis is part impresario, part huckster, part one-man comedy act. When I tracked him down earlier this week, he was in Las Vegas, lounging in a penthouse suite at the Mirage Hotel with '60s icons Donovan and Patti Boyd, waiting to do emcee duty at a Beatles fest there. It was 110 degrees in the shade in Vegas that afternoon, so I asked Lewis what he was wearing. His answer tells you all you need to know about his impresario-huckster-comic persona.
"Being very British and always going against the grain, especially amongst all these Americans in shorts and sandals, I'm wearing a black Armani pin-stripe suit with my best Winklepickers," he explained, Winklepickers being a Cockney term for the stylish sharp-pointed boots that were the shoe of choice among Teddy Boys in the 1950s and were often worn by John Lennon and other '60s British musicians. Lewis insisted that sweltering in Armani was preferable to the comfort of squishy shorts and sandals. "Englishmen don't remove their jackets," he explained, "unless they're in the presence of their personal physician or their mother."
This year's Mods & Rockers Festival is largely a celebration of another fascinating '60s British icon, Tony Palmer. His little seen 17-hour TV series, "All You Need Is Love," is perhaps the most ambitious celebration ever of American popular music. (Read more from our Randy Lewis about Palmer's role in that series. Go here for a full schedule of events.) But I was interested in hearing Lewis talk about something even more strange, obscure and wonderful, a film that screens Monday night that celebrates one of America's landmark achievements, yet has gone virtually unseen here since its 1979 release.
After spending a lot of time in America in the 1970s, researching and filming "All You Need Is Love," Palmer became intrigued with the American space program, which seemed to him one of the signal American accomplishments of the 1960s. With the 10th anniversary of the first lunar landing approaching, Palmer went to NASA and convinced the space agency to let him have free rein to rummage through their years of footage. He was amazed by what he found.
"The film's imagery of real-life deep space is better than any visual effects ever created by ILM or Digital Domain," says Lewis, revving up his huckster persona again. "It's the first time the human eye had ever gone that far into the cosmos. You can say that the space imagery we see today on 'Battlestar Gallatica' is more technically wondrous, but this is the real thing."
Having seen the film, "The Space Movie," for myself last night, I have to say that Lewis is exaggerating a bit. The NASA footage is actually relatively primitive and washed out, especially compared to the crisp visual effects we're used to seeing in movies of today. But in some ways, the film is even better than advertised. NASA seems to have obsessively filmed everything about the space program, so what Palmer has to offer us is something akin to a great backstage concert film, except the concert is NASA's herculean effort to put a man on the moon.
We see rare footage of JFK's "Put a Man on the Moon" speech, grim visuals of launch-pad fiascos and mesmerizing film of the astronauts in outer space, goofing off, shaving, giddily hopping up and down on the moon, at one point singing snippets of pop songs. We hear radio transmissions by NASA techies, full of mission control jargon and bursts of exultation: "Let 'er rip!," "Amen!" and "Oh, baby, I'll give it to ya!" There's no real story line, but the blurry, rough-hewn images--accompanied by a score by Mike Oldfield of "Tubular Bells" fame--are full of awe and wonder, a reminder when our country's horizons seemed endless.
The film shows Monday night at 7:30 p.m. at the Egyptian Theatre and is coming soon on DVD. Ever the impresario, Lewis will not only have Palmer on hand but Apollo astronaut Buzz Aldrin as well. "I just tracked him down and he was eager to see the film on a big screen," says Lewis. "He walked on the moon and now he's going to walk into the Egyptian Theatre too."
Photo of Buzz Aldrin, taken July 20, 1969, from NASA, AFB, Getty Images