"A film so bizarre, so controversial it shall crucify your mind to the sea of conscience"
They don't write straplines like that anymore. Privilege was directed by Peter Watkins and released in 1967. The film is set in the near future where entertainment is controlled by a totalitarian government, and tells the story of a disillusioned pop star Steven Shorter (played by Manfred Mann's Paul Jones) who is manipulated by the church and state, who seek to turn him into a symbol of national unity. Shorter's music and image are then used to channel the impulses of rebellious youth.
The previous year Watkins had won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature for The War Game, his powerful drama depicting the effects of nuclear war on Britain which was banned by the BBC. Watkins quit the company in protest and was looking for another project. A proposed film with Albert Finney about the 1916 Rising collapsed at an early stage and then Watkins was asked to film a screenplay by Johnny Speight. Watkins rewrote Speight's screenplay with the American novelist Norman Bogner and they retitled it Privilege.
A number of musicians including Marc Bolan and Eric Burdon did screen tests for the role of Shorter with the part ultimately going to Paul Jones who had recently left Manfred Mann. The part of Vanessa Ritchie, as an artist commissioned to paint a portrait of Shorter, went to "supermodel" Jean Shrimpton. Both Jones and Shrimpton's acting was heavily criticised upon the film's release.
Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will proved inspirational to Watkins, the ticker tape scene when Shorter arrives in Birmingham for a concert and the evangelical concert in the football stadium (second clip below) are directly inspired by Riefenstahl's film. The film is extremely powerful, and I'd argue that its ultimate message, the power of the mass media to manipulate an audience, is as timely today as it was in 1967. The last clip below sums up the whole idea of the movie brilliantly: Shorter tries to stop the government control of his career but Andrew Butler, charirman of Steven Shorter Enterprises, takes him onto his balcony looking over a highrise urban landscape and explains that the millions of people below need to be harnessed and guided:
"You! You are our chance, Steven. They Identify with you - they love you! Steven, you can lead them into a better way of life - a fruitful conformity."
The first version of Free Me early in the film, performed by "Steven Shorter"
The second version of Free Me from the film. This time, official government approved pop star "Steven Shorter" performs a new Christian version of the song.
The soundtrack is great, some really over the top and bombastic tracks - that's the point. Free Me performed by Paul Jones is fantastic and a cover of the track was recorded by Patti Smith in 1978, retitled Privilege (Set Me Free) and made No. 13 in the Irish charts. Peter Watkins would go on to direct the brilliant Punishment Park in 1971, anyone interested in his work or his views on the Mass Audio Visual Media (MAVM) should read his statement Media Crisis.