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Documentarian Murray Lerner, Who Filmed Bob Dylan’s Landmark Newport Folk Festival Performance, Dead at 90

Jason Kempin, Getty Images
Jason Kempin, Getty Images

Oscar-winning filmmaker Murray Lerner, known to Bob Dylan fans as the director behind the 1967 Newport Folk Festival documentary that captured him “going electric,” has died at the age of 90.

Variety brings word of Lerner’s death, which occurred Sept. 2 at his home in Long Island after several months of illness. “He was a complete filmmaker,” his son Noah told the trade. “A cinematographer first and foremost, but someone who also wrote, edited, produced, and directed.”

Culled from footage collected at the Newport Folk Festival between 1963-66, Lerner’s film Festival earned widespread acclaim, winning the San Giorgio Prize at the 1967 Venice Film Festival and marking him as a filmmaker with an uncommonly perceptive and detailed eye. As Variety‘s report notes, the footage that Lerner compiled for Message to Love: The Isle of Wight Festival was still yielding fresh insights decades later; the filmmaker’s final effort, a documentary about Joni Mitchell‘s performance at the 1970 festival, is scheduled for release next year.

Lerner also returned to his Dylan Newport footage years later, putting together The Other Side of the Mirror: Bob Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival in 2007, but his interests extended well beyond rock ‘n’ roll. His later efforts focused on a wide array of subjects, and although he was always primarily known as a music documentarian, he trained his lens on a variety of genres, winning his 1981 Oscar for From Mao to Mozart: Isaac Stern in China. Even Festival, which attracted attention for its footage of Dylan marking his fateful evolution, captures more than early rock history.

“I’ll go out on a limb and say that equally significant was the footage Murray caught of the early U.S. black blues musicians who performed there and inspired a new generation,” argued Lerner’s friend, producer Martin Lewis. “Artists like Howlin’ Wolf, Mississippi John Hurt and John Lee Hooker didn’t have many performing opportunities at that time in the U.S. They were more popular in England. The one place they did find a home in America was the Newport Folk Festival.”

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