’60s Toronto concert documentary shows unofficial end of The Beatles

Plastic Ono Band invited to save floundering festival

Revival69: The Concert That Rocked the World
Where: In theatres
What: Movie, 97 mins.
When: Toronto — Hot Docs, Sat., Dec. 17 – Thurs. Dec 22; Fox, Tue., Dec. 20 – Thurs. Dec. 22; Hot Docs, Tue., Dec. 27 – Thurs. Dec. 29; Vancouver — Vancity, Sun., Dec. 18, Tue., Dec. 20, Thurs. Dec. 22, Fri., Dec. 23
Genre: Documentary
Why you should watch: A satisfying documentary on a remarkable 1969 Toronto concert that included John Lennon and Yoko Ono, the Doors, Chuck Berry and more. While the appearance of the Plastic Ono Band is seen by many as the unofficial end of the Beatles, the film is also a compelling story of entrepreneurial chutzpah as two young 20-somethings pursue audacious dream.

A somewhat astonishing historical record of a remarkable 1969 concert at Toronto’s Varsity Stadium. The concert served as the unofficial end of The Beatles with a performance by John Lennon and Yoko Ono. It also featured a definitive mix of rock and roll pioneers and representatives of the new generation of rockers.

Rock and roll legends, including Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Gene Vincent and Bo Diddley, are showcased. So are what were then “newer” acts, Chicago Transit Authority, Alice Cooper and The Doors.

The film features great footage from legendary documentary filmmaker D. A. Pennebaker who, like Lennon and Ono, decided to attend the festival at the last minute.

In addition to cool backstage and performance footage, the film tells the story of two young Toronto hustlers who turned a tanking “rock and roll revival” concert into a sold-out show of generational significance.

When their show featuring rock legends from the ’50s fails to sell tickets to the counter-culture crowd, a friendly scenester helps them get a phone call through to John Lennon’s Apple offices. The pair manage to convince the now-reluctant Beatle to come to Toronto on just a few days’ notice, counting on the singer’s love of Berry to get him there.

The whole desperate enterprise secures much-needed funding from the head of the Vagabonds motorcycle club (gang?!), who provides Lennon and Ono with an 80-motorcycle escort from Toronto’s airport to Varsity stadium — and into the grounds — all with the begrudging support of local police.

The film is filled with jaw-dropping moments, including watching The Doors side-stage grooving, first to Berry and later to the Plastic Ono Band’s performance debut. The band includes Eric Clapton and Klaus Voorman, both of whom join the Canadian adventure with just hours’ notice.
Voorman and The Doors’ Robby Krieger are among the list of stellar we-were-there interviewees in the film.

Rush’s Geddy Lee shares his enthusiastic experiences of the show, all through the lens of the acid trip he and a buddy were on throughout the day. Lee says seeing the ex-Beatle live changed his life and his unselfconscious observations are among the film’s highlights.

It’s a film filled with gorgeous moments, including watching Lennon physically support Ono as she wails through a challenging track. It’s impossible not to share in the enthusiasm and wonder as a Toronto musician tells of hanging around, purposely backstage, and then suddenly being invited to form part of Berry’s band, the singer having arrived in Toronto without backup musicians. Accompanying footage of Berry’s set shows the experiment is a success.

More than just a boomer nostalgia trip, Revival69 celebrates youthful audacity as it documents a likely financial disaster saved by gutsy risk-taking and dumb luck by the event’s 20-something producers. It is a remarkable historic record of a concert that is now cited as serving as the unofficial end of the Beatles, the day Lennon experienced life as a post-Mop Top artist and all of the potential and liberation that represented.

It is also a fantastic document of a highly impactful event that seems almost impossible to have taken place. While snippets of some performances have been available for years, this film gives the essential — and entertaining — context to a long-overlooked event.