Lerner spends way too much time soliciting remarks from the musicians about the appeal of folk music, then crams in a lot of performances toward the end. Still, the film bears witness to a remarkable, giddy era.
For a citizen of 2017, the most poignant recurring image in Festival might be of the audience at the Newport Folk Festival, gathered around listening intently to the concert performances. Shot over the course of three festivals from 1963-1966, the film features a society that's a ways away from cellphones and iPads. And the sight of people directly engaging with something in front of them, their attention largely undivided by ceaseless advertisements and vendors, suggests a lost communal oasis.
One of the most powerful things Lerner does in Festival is to crystallize this strange, omnipresent anxiety—a sense, among the crowd, that nothing is guaranteed, including anyone’s tomorrow. It’s hard, watching Festival now, not to take a curious kind of comfort in this reminder that, only fifty years ago, the American experiment felt just as unstable, and the future just as tenuous, as it does today.