arts 09.15.10

Stay All Night

New York-based filmmaker Steven Lippman is working on a film project called Stay All Night that will chronicle the evening of April 23, 1961—the legendary Judy Garland Carnegie Hall concert told from the perspective of those who were there. The concert wasn't filmed, only recorded, but is still being honored and emulated, most recently by Rufus Wainwright's song-for-song recreation at Carnegie itself in 2006. What intrigues us about Lippman's approach is that he's more interested in NYC at a moment in time than in showbiz recollection or fanaticism. We spoke with the director recently about the project.

MUG: Why look at one of the most legendary concerts of all time from the other side of the footlights?
SL: This goes back a bit. I knew the album, happened upon a then-current article about it, and was simply intrigued that something could sustain its relevancy, yet only exist on this recording. I thought, what must it have been like to be there? First I had the notion it would be a book, an oral history, similar to Jean Stein and George Plimpton's "Edie: An American Biography" where you're taking witness. One day, I mentioned the idea to a friend. He said, "You need to talk to my housecleaner, Frank. He was there!" So I went to Frank's apartment in the Village, and asked him to talk about the experience of the concert. It made me realize there was something much larger there in the power and nuance of first-hand recollection, not just of the concert, but of Manhattan in 1961. His descriptions felt cinematic and transportive. My eye would wander to modern Manhattan outside his window, but still feel the past echo in his words. The contrast was exciting. Also, Frank explained to me, the audience was a cross-section of NY life at the time. Garland's audience, contrary to the assumed cliche now, was very diverse. All these sparks made me look at this differently.

MUG: There was a huge showbiz turnout for her, too, wasn't there?
SL: Yes, Bacall, Mike Nichols, Henry Fonda, Julie Andrews, Comden & Green, Rock Hudson, Leonard Bernstein, Carol Channing—they were all there. By all accounts, many were in tears watching her. Some were her friends, but I also imagine the emotions ran high just to see her in such triumphant form. Prior, she'd been very ill, and was told by doctors that she'd never perform again. Garland had the last word on that.

MUG: How did the idea go from book to movie?
SL: I think in visual terms and the changing scope of the original idea necessitated that I put it away for a while. My attention was focused on conceiving and directing a series of music short films—with Laurie Anderson, Rosanne Cash, David Bowie, among others—that weren't performance driven, but very experiential; a mixture of music, ruminations, and imagery that, despite their unusual form, are still accessible. I'd been thinking of broader canvasses, and just kept coming back to the idea of the Garland concert and that day talking to Frank.

MUG: Even though the concert wasn't filmed?
SL: Right. On a basic level, you could say it's the craziest thing in the world to make a film about something one can't see, but there's power in the unseen. For example, did you ever watch Maximilian Schell's "Marlene" where Dietrich refuses to be shown and he builds a whole film around her voice? Remarkable. Or those Michael Bennett tape recorder scenes in "Every Little Step." Plus, our film is about more than just the concert. Garland, and that legendary night, is the connective thread, but it's also about her impact on the audience, and how this could have only happened in NYC. These witnesses are great raconteurs, filled with beautiful, funny, passionate tales and observations that will guide us to paint a picture of that night, the time and the city, not just then, but now. It's won't be just talking heads, but far more kaleidoscopic, using both found and newly-created images. And there's the city of course. It's already a perfect movie set.

MUG: So part of the mystique comes from its not having been filmed.
SL: Exactly. There are great performers today, but we have so much visual information on them that there's no mystery. We are embracing the mystery specific to Carnegie. It's Garland herself, and her impact that continues to reverberate. It feels like a tangible force handed down from her, to the Carnegie witnesses, and in turn, to us. A few years back, David Was on NPR analyzed her performance and compared her to Kurt Cobain in the primal connection she had with her audience. She wasn't afraid to sweat or kick off her shoes and literally reach out to people. I understand the comparison, and the rock/punk metaphor. I'd add that her talent was so enormous, her ability to empathize with outsiders and insiders alike so great, that in possessing that power, she couldn't help but be larger than life. Still, listening to the concert, you can really focus on her artistry, and strip away all the cliches that have been heaped upon her. For me, there's a joy to be found in the exaltation, even when she's breaking your heart. That talent can't be manufactured.

MUG: Have you started filming?
SL: No, my producers and I have been actively developing it for the past year and a half, doing research with John Fricke, the acclaimed Garland historian, forming our creative team, and finding our audience members. We have development capital, and are in the full-funding stage which has yielded some exciting things I can't really talk about yet…

MUG: So if anyone wants to invest…
SL: (Laughs.) Yes, there is still room for investors! They can find us through our website. There's also information there on how to get in touch with us if they, or anyone they know, were there at Carnegie. To follow our progress, they should check out our Facebook page. We hope to finish the film in time for the 50th anniversary year of the concert, but the main goal is to make a film worthy of it all.

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