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2017 Outstanding Achievement Award: Tony Palmer

“Nothing quite prepares the Palmer novice for the ferocity and daring and the intense subjective raptures of work that still have to be classified as ‘documentary.’” - David Thomson, The Biographical Dictionary of Film

“Are you doing anything useful these days?” This was how Tony Palmer was greeted by John Lennon on a New York street in 1972. Being useful is the raison d’être of every documentary filmmaker, so together over lunch the pair sketched out a plan for an ambitious 17-part documentary series on the history of popular music. Lennon suggested a catchy title: All You Need is Love.

Love, and indeed usefulness, have been the cornerstones of the films Tony Palmer has made over the past 50 years. At the time of this chance meeting, he had only been making films for about six years, after leaving studies at Cambridge to work with Ken Russell at the BBC. But in that time, he’d already made 25 documentaries on a diverse array of artists, from Cream, Jimi Hendrix, Frank Zappa and the Beatles to Leonard Bernstein, Peter Sellers and Benjamin Britten.

All You Need is Love was a revelation. Seduced by the promise of rock music on TV (there was very little at the time), we were immersed in a delirious deconstruction of a century and a half of popular culture that made us look at music and the world with fresh eyes. More than a few Beatle fans gained a newfound admiration for Hoagy Carmichael, Helen Humes and the Carter Family.

Palmer’s work continues to set new standards and push the limits of the genres of biography and performing arts films. His films are often rebellious, idiosyncratic and almost always subversive. In these portraits of artists, Palmer rarely follows a standard birth-to-death chronology. Bird on a Wire, his film about Leonard Cohen’s 1972 tour, begins with a riot at a concert at tour’s end. Palmer’s road maps are tossed aside in favour of a narrative that may only become clear near the end of the film.

“Palmer’s films have tantalized, perplexed, and even baffled some viewers and critics alike in their styles, structures, and meanings… Palmer serves up a fluid, wildly inter-textual continuum of time and space, where the grotesque and the tragic, the classical and the popular, meld, separate, and reform in a perpetual oscillation.” - John Tibbetts, All My Loving? The Films of Tony Palmer

Palmer shares his passion and love for his subjects, and generously, his own unique access to them. Whether his subjects are onstage or off and behind the scenes, Palmer finds ways to reveal meaning and intent—sometimes elegantly, other times with a juxtaposition of violence and beauty, rarely with a voice-of-God narrator telling us what to think.

At the centre of it all, there is music, even if the subject of the story is not a musician. Palmer says that Ken Russell taught him one important thing: “Never ever use music as background. Music is part of the narrative drive of the film. Put it in the foreground. Start with the music and everything else will take care of itself.”

His work has certainly inspired me to go further and make my own films about the artists that matter to me. It’s a thrill and a pleasure to know Hot Docs audiences are about to become better acquainted with Tony Palmer and his work as we present him with the Outstanding Achievement award in recognition of his vision. And usefulness.

— Michael McNamara
Filmmaker, Hot Docs Programming Committee Chair



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