Lerner’s son, Noah, said the filmmaker died at his home in Long Island City, New York after falling ill about three months ago. “He was a complete filmmaker,” Noah Lerner said. “A cinematographer first and foremost, but someone who also wrote, edited, produced and directed.”
Along with Dylan and Hendrix, Lerner’s myriad subjects included the Who, Miles Davis, Emerson, Lake and Palmer and Leonard Cohen. He earned an Oscar nomination for his acclaimed 1967 film, Festival, which chronicled the Newport Folk Festival between 1963 and 1965, capturing performances from Pete Seeger, Johnny Cash, Joan Baez, Judy Collins and more, along with Dylan’s infamous electric debut. In 1981, Lerner won the Oscar for Best Documentary for From Mao to Mozart: Isaac Stern in China, which followed acclaimed violinist Isaac Stern as he traveled around China, performing and mentoring young musicians.
Lerner was born in Philadelphia, raised in New York and, while studying English at Harvard, helped create the school’s first campus film society. His first documentary, Secrets of the Reef, explored underwater life, though Lerner cemented himself as a music documentarian with his second film, Festival. (Coincidentally, Festival is set to be re-released as part of the Criterion Collection September 12th).
While Festival may be best known for the Dylan footage, Lerner also captured important performances of seminal blues artists such as Howlin’ Wolf, Mississippi John Hurt and John Lee Hooker, helping introduce them to a larger audience in the U.S. He also took his camera away from the big stages, filming audience members and more intimate performances, like one of Son House performing in a field for a small audience that included Mike Bloomfield and Paul Butterfield.
In 1970, Lerner traveled to England to document the legendary Isle of Wight Festival. There, he captured Hendrix, the Doors, the Who and more while immersing himself the crowd. However, a legal battle stalled production and when Lerner finally gained control of the footage, demand for a movie about the festival had dwindled. Over two decades later, however, Lerner began compiling his Isle of Wight footage into various films, starting with 1991’s Jimi Hendrix at the Isle of Wight and following that in 1996 with Message to Love: The Isle of Wight Festival.
Lerner would continue to mine his footage from Isle of Wight into various artist-specific films. His last was 2015’s Taste: What’s Going On, which captured a performance of Rory Gallagher’s influential, but short-lived rock outfit. In the months before his death, Lerner was working on a new film about Joni Mitchell’s rocky set at Isle of Wight where she was heckled and broke down in tears. The film is expected to arrive in 2018.
In 2007, Lerner also returned to his Newport Folk Festival footage to compile the Dylan doc, The Other Side of the Mirror: Bob Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival. The movie featured one of Dylan’s first duets with Joan Baez and a rehearsal of “Maggie’s Farm” prior to the electric set. “During that performance, Dylan was like the high priest of a new religion,” Lerner told Rolling Stone of the infamous gig in 2007. “We were entering into a gateway I thought would change the culture.”