Peter Whitehead, swinging ’60s filmmaker, dies at 82
NEW YORK — Peter Whitehead, a British filmmaker whose movies both captured and helped define that moment in time labeled the Swinging ’60s, replete with early footage of the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, and other rock groups, died June 10 in East London. He was 82.
De Montfort University in Leicester, England, which holds his archive, posted news of his death. Steve Chibnall, a professor of British cinema there who curates that archive with his colleague, Alissa Clarke, said the cause was multiple organ failure after a long illness.
Mr. Whitehead, a Liverpool native, began drawing attention in film circles when he took his camera to a 1965 festival at Royal Albert Hall in London that featured both British and American poets, including Adrian Mitchell, Michael Horovitz, and Allen Ginsberg. The resulting film, “Wholly Communion,” captured what turned out to be a seminal event in the emerging counterculture movement.
It also earned him an invitation to accompany the Rolling Stones on a tour of Ireland, resulting in an hourlong documentary, “Charlie Is My Darling” (1966), as well as some short promotional films that anticipated music videos.
The documentary is full of behind-the-scenes clips of the band members intercut with snippets of fans trying to articulate what attracts them to the group. The film, Chibnall wrote in a 2011 article for the film journal Framework, “gave Whitehead his first real opportunity to interrogate the madness of celebrity.”
In 1967, Mr. Whitehead garnered widespread attention with “Tonite Let’s All Make Love in London,” a fast-paced collage of the ’60s scene in that city with a title taken from a Ginsberg poem. It is by no means a typical documentary; it strings together images and the occasional comment from celebrities such as Michael Caine and Julie Christie to create a dizzying kaleidoscope that is open to interpretation. Mr. Whitehead could well be extolling the liberation of the period, but he could also be criticizing it as vacuous.
The style was jarringly different, and some old-school critics harrumphed. When the film, which also features music by and footage of Pink Floyd, played at the New York Film Festival in 1967, Bosley Crowther, reviewing it in The New York Times, called it “a random and ricocheting hodgepodge.”
But the film had plenty of admirers, especially among the day’s trendsetters. And decades later, it and other projects by Mr. Whitehead were getting a critical reassessment.
“Part trippy time capsule, part live-action ‘Fantasia,’ ” Mark Griffin wrote in The Boston Globe in 2006, “a Peter Whitehead film reminds contemporary viewers immersed in an age of irony that people were once this vibrant, unapologetically involved and alive.”