Certain things improve the longer they stay on the shelf: bottles of old port, for example, or stinky cheeses. Documentaries? Not so much. They often acquire an outdated odor.
So why does “The Newport Effect,” which gets its world premiere Thursday at Spirit Square, seem so fresh? Producers Beverly Penninger and Alyson Young worked on their tribute to the Newport Folk Festival for 12 years – 16, if you count the time the idea gestated in their starstruck brains – when time and energy and credit cards would allow.
The result encapulates half a century of America’s greatest folk festival in about 110 minutes, from the gregarious Pete Seeker to the imperious Odetta to the eternally elusive Bob Dylan. “His manager told us he doesn’t do interviews on tour,” says Young. “Of course, he never stops touring. But they did give us 30 seconds of footage of him playing ‘Chimes of Freedom,’ and that was free.”
If you know the filmmakers’ names, perhaps you saw “The Spirit of Sacajawea,” their 2007 documentary about the native American woman who played a key role in the Lewis and Clark expedition. That film had a respectful and admiring tone; this one exudes joy.
“Neither of us knew anything about the Newport Folk Festival, but we’re big Joan Armatrading fans. We went to see her play there in 1996, fell in love with the festival and decided to come back every year,” says Young. “We’re sitting with the regulars in 1997, talking about our idea for a film, and a woman tells us, ‘You know whom you need to talk to? That guy right there.’”
The guy was Bob Jones, who’d been assisting festival founder George Wein for decades as a producer. A friendship sprang up over the years, with Jones providing backstage passes in 1999. In 2001, he suggested they interview Joyce Wein, who helped her husband organize the first fest in 1959.
“He wanted to make sure we honored the elders,” says Penninger. “When I talked to Joyce, I knew nothing about people she was mentioning. I was nodding and saying, ‘Oh, yes. Uh-huh.’ But we got serious.”
Jones recalls: “They were confident, they had experience as filmmakers, and there was no talk about making a lot of money,” Jones recalls. “They felt the film was important to do, and that rang the bell inside me loudly.
“I said, ‘This is about a lot more than the artists. The foundation (behind the festival) was involved in saving traditional blues music and music from Appalachia, presenting artists involved in the civil rights movement.’”
Jones paved the way for interviews with Joan Baez, Doc Watson, Judy Collins and Earl Scruggs. Penninger and Young interviewed folks at the festival, as they went back year after year; they also darted off if singers came through the Carolinas, catching Steve Earle after a Neighborhood Theatre gig and Theodore Bikel while he was playing Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof” at the Belk.
They spent money wisely: While shooting corporate video in Ireland, they nipped over to London and recorded Armatrading to do the main narration for “Newport.” And they had a clever idea, enlisting musicians to narrate segments. Angelique Kidjo agreed to narrate a world music sequence; Michael Doucet talks about Cajun performers; Mavis Staples chats about gospel groups.
The documentary also encompasses the modern likes of Maura O’Connell and the Avett Brothers and The Low Anthem.
Naturally, Young and Penninger have regrets. The movie’s not a concert film, so performances had to be abbreviated and performers left out: Dave Van Ronk, Eric Andersen.
However, says Penninger, “We only asked people we admired, and almost all were generous with their time. We were told we’d have 10 minutes with Judy Collins, and she talked for over an hour.” Her handler kept saying, ‘Judy, we have to get ready for the concert!’”
Adds Young, “We tried to give our narrators some small compensation, but none of them would take it.” Good thing, too: She and Penninger raised about $30,000 through a Kickstarter campaign, got some in-kind contributions and raised the rest themselves.
They’ll get some of it back Thursday at McGlohon Theatre, where the band Carolina Gator Gumbo will play before the screening and at intermission. (It’s shown in two parts, each just under an hour.) Jones, to whom the film is dedicated, will join Penninger and Young for a Q-and-A afterward.
WTVI will air it Nov. 21 and 28. The producers hope to make a small tour through cities where segment narrators live (Chicago, New York, New Orleans, St. Louis, L.A.) to do screenings with singers present. Film festivals, schools and public TV await, as does some method of wide distribution once music rights are cleared.
And, of course, they want to show it at Newport someday.
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