Peter Whitehead, who died on 10th June 2019, is probably best known as the filmmaker who captured early Pink Floyd performances in his films London ’66 – ’67 and Tonite Let’s All Make Love in London, two variations on a work that is a vital document of underground London music and art at the birth of the psychedelic era. But Whitehead was always more than a mere documentarian – his work is as much a part of the counterculture that it represents as anything contained therein.
His 1960s films – also including the Rolling Stones documentary Charlie is My Darling and Wholly Communion, a look at the 1965 Royal Albert Hall International Poetry Incarnation with Allan Ginsberg – are pretty essential studies of the culture shifts of the era, and he also captured performances by the likes of Nico, the Stones and P.P. Arnold and the Small Faces for film clips. In 1969, he made a study of American violence and revolution, The Fall, and then in the 1970s he made a series of challenging and provocative films, starting with the controversial Daddy in 1972, an incest-themed nightmare made in collaboration with artist Niki de Saint Phalle that would later spawn the erotic photo book Baby Doll (published in 1997), both featuring his lover, the 21-year-old model and heiress Mia Martin, and both laced with sexual obsession, dark eroticism and drug-fuelled madness.
His 1977 film Fire in the Water is a mix of experimental filmmaking, folk horror and documentary (featuring material from his earlier films). I saw this at a gallery screening several years ago, where the audience watched in numbed silence, and was blown away by it.
Whitehead also wrote several novels and published screenplays of his films, and then – in a curious career switch – turned to falcon breeding in Saudi Arabia for a few decades, before returning to film in 2009 with the epic Terrorism Considered As One Of The Fine Arts, a film that showed he had lost none of his provocativeness or experimentalism.
Whitehead’s work seems an almost alien concept in these days of conformist, sanitised filmmaking and earnestly social conscious rock ‘n’ roll, and if anything that makes it even more vital than it was at the time. Depressingly little of it is easily available, but what is out there is well worth seeking out.