By Nicole Koster
Though the Woodstock Music and Arts Festival of 1969 is one of the most famous music festivals in history, the Celebration of Life Festival held right here in Louisiana in June of 1971 was inspired by Woodstock but somehow forgotten.
Nicholas Brilleaux and Scott Caro, both graduate students in the history department, showcased their documentary 1971" at the Columbia Theatre last week as part of Fanfare. It was also an official selection of the 2013 New Orleans Film Festival. The directors took nine months to make the film, and with Caro being a staff member at the Center for Southeast Louisiana Studies, the two of them had lots of information at their fingertips. Brilleaux has been making films since the age of 11 but "really learned shooting and editing techniques while working at the Southeastern Channel as an undergrad," he said.
The background is very rich. Production manager Vaughn Mordenti proposed a plan for the Celebration of Life Festival. Originally, it was to be held in LaPlace, La. but was turned down, so the location was moved to McCrea, La. Advertised in the original poster as "The Celebration of Life: Eight Days in the Country," the lineup included acts such as The Beach Boys, Pink Floyd, B.B. King and Canned Heat.
"We both found the subject intriguing," said Brilleaux, a native of London, but who has lived in Hammond since the age of six. "Any time you come across an interesting topic that has received basically zero attention academically, it's very exciting."
The festival began on a Monday, but Point Coupee Parish police officers began evicting "long-haired youths" on Saturday. The festival grounds, on Cypress Pointe Plantation, were expected to see over 100,000 visitors. Cars began lining the roads as far back as West Baton Rouge Parish, and for a week the roadways became parking lots. Hippies were everywhere and so were drugs, but according to sources interviewed for the film, it was a calm atmosphere.
Drug dealers were selling mescaline and LSD for $1, and after the festival was over with, the field began producing marijuana plants because of all the seeds left behind by festival goers.
Mordenti's dream to pull off this "very ambitious" eight day festival soon dwindled. It ended up only running for four days, and more than half of the 31 advertised acts dropped out because the festival was delayed by law enforcement, though the legend goes that the poster was false advertisement, and they never signed up in the first place. John Sebastian, Chuck Berry, Bloodrock, the Amboy Dukes, Boz Scaggs, Delaney and Bonnie and Stephen Stills were among the few who performed. With the Louisiana summer heat, low supplies and poor promoting and management went very wrong in McCrea.
"[The delay] created a problem for the acts, who usually have these things booked months in advance," said Brilleaux. "Had the festival started when it was supposed to, most of the bands advertised would have shown up. As for the heat, the mosquitos and the several drownings in the Atchafalaya River, these would have still been issues regardless of who performed."
There was one confirmed drowning in the Atchafalaya River, and when the New Orleans Galloping Gooses were called in for hired security, the motorcycle gang members began raping women and violently taking the law into their own hands. Point Coupee Parish police officers finally ran them out of town.
The historical value of the festival was largely part of why Brilleaux and Caro chose the topic, and after all their interviewing, researching and editing, they are very proud of the end product. The viewers can make their own opinion of the Celebration of Life festival.
Caro said the message of the film is deeper than the surface, much more than young people doing drugs in a field. The music festival phenomenon of the 60s and 70s was a movement that stemmed directly from the middle-class affluence of the period.
"It's hard for younger people today to understand that the music and entertainment industries were becoming powerful socio-economic forces for the first time," said Caro. "Alongside that, the youth became an economic and political force. The shared experience of listening to records was like the social networking of the time and affected the general attitude and culture of the nation greatly."