"Free Tibet"

Half flimsy documentary, half unexceptional concert movie -- but Beck and Bjvrk are priceless.

By Jeff Stark
Published August 24, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

"Free Tibet"
Directed by Sarah Pirozek
With performances by the Beastie Boys, Beck, Bjvrk, Foo Fighters, Fugees, John Lee Hooker, Pavement, Sonic Youth, A Tribe Called Quest, Rage Against the Machine, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Smashing Pumpkins and others
The Shooting Gallery/Mammoth Pictures/Palm Pictures; full frame
Extras: Audio commentary by Adam Yauch, Spike Jonze and Evan Bernard, two short features on Milarepa and Chinese political prisoners, more

"Free Tibet" is two movies smooshed together. Half of it is a thin, ideological and factually limited documentary about the terrible Chinese invasion of Tibet and the rolling effort to end the occupation. The other half is an unexceptional concert movie with mediocre sound, sprinkled with a few riveting performances by alt-rock heroes captured during the waning moments of the revolution that Nirvana wrought.

Sarah Pirozek's film, which played at a small circuit of independent theaters before going to video, was shot almost exclusively at the first Tibetan Freedom Concert, a two-day event held in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park in 1996. The concert was organized by the Beastie Boys and the Milarepa Fund, the activist organization the Boys founded to advocate for a free Tibet. The concert featured more than 20 bands, including Beck, Bjvrk, De La Soul, the Fugees, the Smashing Pumpkins and Rage Against the Machine.

The documentary half of the film is harrowing: Much of it relies on archival footage of Tibetans being beaten by Chinese soldiers. Equally unsettling are on-site press conference interviews in which a nun who had been raped and a monk who was held in prison for 33 years recount their abuse. The latter was subjected to cruel torture. At one point, he explains how guards forced him to eat an electric cattle prod; he pulls out his false teeth, and you want to cry.

The images are terrible, and they're also manipulative, simplifying what is a complex political situation compounded by historical circumstance and misunderstanding. The film never lets you forget its goal: It wants viewers to free Tibet, and it walks them through the baby steps of activism. (The Milarepa Web site is far more thorough on the history of Tibet and the context for the Chinese invasion. It notes that more than 90 percent of the Tibetan people were slaves and serfs, but it oddly calls this information Chinese propaganda.)

A few interviews with rock stars of varying political consciousness tie the documentary half to the concert half. Smashing Pumpkins seem to have a clue, as does Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Bjvrk. Others, like De La Soul and the Foo Fighters -- who onstage cluelessly call themselves the Freedom Fighters (like the Contras?) -- seem a bit more out of the loop. To her credit, Pirozek doesn't pretend that they're not.

The DVD audio commentary is cloying. For some reason, Pirozek doesn't contribute, leaving executive producer and Beastie Boy Adam Yauch and cinematographers/men-with-cameras Spike Jonze ("Being John Malkovich") and Evan Bernard to yak it up. The problem is that all three, and particularly Yauch, are too charmingly humble to take much credit for what was a fairly extraordinary event. That's nice, and I think more of Yauch for it, but it makes for pretty dull listening. And rather than unpack some of the film's more questionable images -- why, for instance, does Rage Against the Machine appear onstage with a banner of Che Guevara, a sycophant of Chairman Mao, the Chinese leader who set his sights on Tibet in 1949? -- the cool boys club plays yearbook editor, pointing out who shot what where, talking about backstage antics and going on about the after party. Perhaps the most important detail they reveal is that the performances in the movie occur out of order from the way they happened at the two-day event. The other DVD extras include brief clips on Milarepa and Tibetan political prisoners and a closely edited performance of the Beastie Boys' "Root Down" at the New York Tibetan Freedom Concert a year later.

Most of the performances are fine, few transcendent. Some are compromised by cutaway shots to people on the grounds or annoying voice-over interviews. Others get full treatment and produce priceless results. Beck's harmonica solo on "One Foot in the Grave" is a "Dont Look Back" moment, and Bjvrk, well, it wouldn't surprise me if she could levitate. Her version of "Hyperballad," sung to canned beats and shot almost exclusively by one hand-held camera in the pit, is one of the greatest performances I've ever seen captured on film. At one point in the song, she centers off against the Tibetan flag. She's angelic but incredibly human, huffing and puffing, believing in art, singing with conviction and honesty. It's a moment of perfect serendipity, her pixie face framed by the halo of the Tibetan sun.

Jeff Stark

Jeff Stark is the associate editor of Salon Arts and Entertainment.

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