|Subject: Peter Whitehead, Filmmaker ("Charlie Is My Darling", starring the Rolling Stones)
Dead at 82
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Date Posted: Thursday, June 13, 04:20:33pm
Peter Whitehead obituary
One of Britain’s most provocative film-makers whose work documented the counterculture of the 1960s
Thu 13 Jun 2019 12.15 EDT
Peter Whitehead, who has died aged 82, could justifiably claim to be one of Britain’s most distinctive and provocative film-makers. His film about the Rolling Stones, Charlie Is My Darling (1966), was a pioneering portrait of the group amid the whirlwind of fan mania, its on-the-road intimacy a precursor of Donn Pennebaker’s Bob Dylan film Don’t Look Back and a blueprint for countless future music documentaries.
In Tonite Let’s All Make Love in London (1967), Whitehead created what for many critics was the definitive document of swinging London in its period as a white-hot crucible of music, fashion and film. The many short music films Whitehead made in the 1960s foreshadowed the era of the video promo clip that blossomed in the MTV era of the 80s.
But by the time he made The Fall (1969), arguably his masterpiece, the intellectually restless Whitehead had moved beyond being merely an onlooker recording events with his camera and was pursuing his own inner journey through a period of violent social and political change.
His most intensely creative period began in 1965, when he filmed the International Poetry Incarnation – a gathering of beat poets, including Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti – at the Royal Albert Hall in London, to make the 33-minute documentary Wholly Communion.
Word of this reached the Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham, who invited Whitehead to film the Stones’ trip to Belfast and Dublin in September that year. The resulting Charlie Is My Darling had its first public screening at the 1966 Mannheim film festival, where it was considered for the gold medal (which was won instead by Wholly Communion). However, a clash with Oldham about the film’s portrayal of the Stones meant that it never went on general release.
Whitehead did further work with the Stones, including the promo film for the single Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing in the Shadow? (1966) and the audacious clip for We Love You (1967). The latter was shot the day before Mick Jagger and Keith Richards appealed against their drug convictions, and starred the two Stones and Marianne Faithfull in a remake of Oscar Wilde’s indecency trial. “My ambitions are very high – none higher – to be a genius in and with the cinema,” Whitehead wrote in a letter to Oldham.
Though he was a classical music enthusiast with little interest in pop, Whitehead understood its potency. He shot films with the Small Faces, the Beach Boys, Eric Burdon, Jimi Hendrix, Nico, the Beach Boys and Pink Floyd, and in 1970 he made a memorable concert film of Led Zeppelin at the Albert Hall.
While Tonite Let’s All Make Love in London made Whitehead the toast of the 60s in-crowd, the film also included critical remarks about the vapidity of the London milieu from Jagger, Michael Caine and David Hockney. Whitehead himself, a vehement opponent of US imperialism and the Vietnam war, had a theory that the invention of “swinging London” was “a CIA manoeuvre designed to make British counterculture appear inconsequential and impotent”, as he wrote in 2002.
Thus he was enthusiastic about Peter Brook’s invitation to film his experimental Royal Shakespeare Company play US, designed to challenge British apathy about the escalating Vietnam conflict. When the resulting film, Benefit of the Doubt, was screened alongside Tonite … at the New York film festival in September 1967, Whitehead was invited to make a film about the New York “scene”.
He was eager to oblige, but the project, eventually released as The Fall (1969), ballooned into a panorama of politics, violent protest and an anguished examination of the role of the documentary film-maker, as Whitehead became a participant in the 1968 student occupation of New York’s Columbia University. His filming schedule was bookended by the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. He wrote that when he got back to London, “I had a nervous breakdown. Didn’t speak for three months.”
Born in Liverpool, Peter was the only child of William, a plumber who worked at the city’s docks, and his wife, Zenia. In 1940 his father was sent to Iran for wartime service, after which his mother had to give up the family home. Whitehead later wrote: “I spent the war years drifting, wandering from town to town, living alone with my mother in numerous cheap single-bed sitting rooms in rented accommodations around Lancashire.” In 1941 they moved to Leyland, where his mother worked in a factory making Spitfires. Peter attended Leyland Methodist school.
When his father returned from the second world war the family moved to London and lived in council accommodation while his father tried to start a plumbing business. Peter took his 11-plus exam at St Leonard’s Church of England primary school in Streatham and in 1949 won a local authority scholarship to Ashville college in Harrogate, Yorkshire. Around this time his father died of cancer.
Though he thrived at Ashville, captaining the rugby team, becoming the school organist and winning a scholarship to Peterhouse, Cambridge, to study maths, physics and chemistry, his experiences crystallised the seething class consciousness that never left him.
Before Cambridge, Whitehead did two years’ national service in the army. Once he was at the university, he wanted to switch to English literature, but succeeded only in moving to physiology, mineralogy and crystallography. He was able to assuage his writerly urges with contributions to the Cambridge Evening News and the university newspaper, and won a scholarship to the Slade School of Art in London.
This was to train as a painter, but Whitehead, who at Cambridge had been an avid consumer of the films of Ingmar Bergman, Jean-Luc Godard and Federico Fellini, was suddenly gripped by a passion for film-making. He became one of the first students at the Slade’s new film department, run by the film director Thorold Dickinson.
A pair of short films Whitehead made in 1962 gained him a contract with the Nuffield Foundation, for which he made The Perception of Life (1964), about how advances in microscopy had expanded scientific knowledge. Also in 1964, Whitehead worked as a freelance documentary cameraman for Italian television.
The traumas of making The Fall prompted Whitehead to move away from film-making. Though he made Daddy (1973), a sexual psychodrama about the sculptor Niki de Saint Phalle, and Fire in the Water (1977), a vehicle for his then partner Nathalie Delon, his attention now centred on breeding falcons. A student of ancient Egyptian mythology, he was obsessed with the story of Isis and Osiris giving birth to Horus the falcon.
In 1981 he was invited by Prince Khalid al-Faisal of Saudi Arabia to assist in building the Al Faisal Centre, the world’s largest falcon-breeding establishment sited on top of the country’s highest mountain, Al Souda. Whitehead moved there with his wife Dido Goldsmith, daugher of the environmentalist Teddy Goldsmith, whom he had married in 1979. However, the project was cut short in 1991 by the first Gulf war.
Returning to London, Whitehead poured his energies into writing novels, frequently self-published in the absence of commercial interest. One of them was Terrorism Considered As One of the Fine Arts (2007), which Whitehead turned into a film in 2009, shot in Vienna. Its themes included “the CIA’s influence on English culture” and “the fear that the state spreads in order to control”.
In 1998 Whitehead appeared in The Falconer on Channel 4, a “fictionalised biography” of him by Chris Petit and Iain Sinclair. After initially hailing it as a masterpiece, Whitehead changed his mind and declared it “a deliberate, calculated betrayal”. Paul Cronin’s two-part documentary In the Beginning Was the Image: Conversations With Peter Whitehead (2006), comprised new and archive interviews with Whitehead and extracts from his work.
His marriage to Goldsmith ended in 2002. The couple’s daughter Robin died of a heroin overdose in 2010, while she was making the documentary The Road to Albion about the Libertines frontman Pete Doherty.
A subsequent marriage, to Liza Kareninam, ended in divorce. Whitehead is survived by seven children: three daughters, Leila, Charlene and Rosetta, from his marriage to Goldsmith; by Tamsin and Sian, the daughters of his first marriage, to Diane Leigh (nee Cottrill), which ended in divorce; by a daughter, Joanna, from a relationship with Deanna Woodrow; and by a son, Harry, from a relationship with Coral Atkins.
• Peter Lorrimer Whitehead, film-maker and writer, born 8 January 1937; died 10 June 2019
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