Romantic Warriors III: Canterbury Tales
Distributed by Zeitgeist Media, 301 Potter Lane, Rockville, MD 20850; 240-505-8696
Produced by Adele Schmidt and José Zegarra Holder
Directed by Adele Schmidt and José Zegarra Holder
DVD , color, 116 min.
College - General Adult
Music, Rock Music, Progressive Rock, Avant Progressive, Post Rock, Art Rock, Popular Music
Reviewed by Vincent J. Novara, Curator, Special Collections in Performing Arts, University of Maryland
Date Entered: 7/1/2015
With each installment in their series of progressive rock documentaries, filmmakers Adele Schmidt and José Zegarra Holder have sharpened the focus and consequently produced more valuable studies of this topic. For their third examination of progressive rock, Romantic Warriors III – Canterbury Tales, they solely explore the renowned scene in the small city of Canterbury, England, and the influential sound born of the bands that arose during the late 1960s into the 1970s. The filmmakers operate from a thesis that the members of Soft Machine were the trailblazers for the Canterbury sound, and the film’s narrative supports that claim.
The bulk of the film is constructed of contemporary footage, most of it in the form of new interviews, accompanied by performances and local scenic shots. While the information value of the content is consistently rich, the quality of the picture or audio varies, but the majority of footage does keep with the standard of the other Romantic Warriors documentaries. And after three films on this topic, as well as other award winning documentaries, their style is evident – an approach that seems to encourage frankness and enthusiasm from their interviewees. (The filmmakers are aided by the natural charm of the assorted musicians featured in this film.) The film is presented without narration, leaving the musicians to best share the story in their own words. In addition to the interviews, there is generous use of historic footage from archival film and video stock. Of course, some picture degradation is to be expected, but the earlier performance footage is quite exciting to see and deftly deployed throughout – in particular the earlier trio performances of Soft Machine. The archival footage is complemented by other primary sources in the form of contemporaneous news-clippings, posters, flyers, promotional photography, as well as personal candid photographs.
In Zeitgeist Media’s promotional material for the film, they explain that the Canterbury scene contributed to “the development of Jazz Rock.” Indeed, one could call this movie a “jazz-rock saga,” but not the polite American fusion of the later 1970s and 1980s – the music is freakier, more psychedelic, which is not surprising considering the attention afforded to Daevid Allen.
The recently late Allen – a co-founder of Soft Machine, but better known for Gong – epitomizes the furthest eccentric end of the Canterbury spectrum as represented in Romantic Warriors III. The filmmakers return to him often, and though he makes for entertaining and informative viewing, his persistent wackiness does start to wear thin after a while. It is a shame that Robert Wyatt was not available to provide some balance, especially with Soft Machine so central to the film’s thesis.
After watching this film, viewers will start to believe that Canterbury’s influence on progressive rock reverberates internationally much in the same way that people think of Kingston for reggae, Los Angeles for hair metal, New Orleans for jazz, or Seoul for K-pop. Moreover, while concurrent bands frequently influence each other, viewers with knowledge of pre-Discipline King Crimson, or Emerson, Lake, and Palmer from the 1970s, will hear the influence of Canterbury on those progressive rock bands that achieved more commercial success. Even recent bands with progressive tendencies, such as Aloha, Medications, or The Effects drew influence from the Canterbury sound.
As the history of the scene unfolds in the documentary, it becomes clear that akin to other tight music communities, the bands consist of many of the same people merely reshuffled. The documentary allows the interviewees to connect all of these figures and explain the relationships and the resultant lineage of influence on one another. Alas, nothing is made of the fact that men predominantly populate these bands, apart from the occasional woman vocalist; and while this is not uncommon in other genres of rock, it is a fact meriting consideration.
The specter of corporate rock’s influence as the 1970s turnover into the 1980s is briefly addressed, particularly in terms of Gong’s development after Allen’s departure. Indeed, the era between the 1980s and 2014 is addressed very little, if at all. There is plenty of footage of these musicians as either young men in their glory, or as senior citizens keeping the faith. To the film’s credit, it does not devolve into a “where are they now” exercise, and maintains its focus on the lasting vitality of this community’s music and influence. The musicians interviewed here are not speaking wistfully for a time long past, but as enduring and inspired practitioners. However, one reason for these musicians remaining active professionals is that they must continue to generate income. Some appear to face economic challenges, and a few indicate that they suffered from unfortunate corrupt business practices of managers or labels (major or independent).
Canterbury’s scene is deeply explored for its music, but not so much the city itself. This necessary context is somewhat overlooked. As a result, viewers may wonder: Why did this city developed such a community of musicians? What of its socio-economic status or cultural heritage brings about this type of creative expression? It is curious that when the filmmakers visit The Hague to examine the group Supersister, a peer band that was influenced by and connected to the Canterbury scene, that city is actually given greater historical context than the film’s main setting.
In addition to the comprehensive investigation of the Canterbury scene, Romantic Warriors III will prove very useful for researchers of many of the bands featured, most notably Soft Machine, Gong, Caravan, Egg, Supersister, and Moving Gelatine Plates. Furthermore, in the right hands, the film will also serve the needs of scholars studying distinct creative arts communities. Given the clear influence of Canterbury on rock music throughout the world, Romantic Warriors III has a place in any academic music or media library supporting popular music or jazz studies. Fans of progressive rock should hope for a fourth installment by Schmidt and Zegarra Holder.