By Kristopher Woofter and Will Dodson.

Can we turn on the lights again? Can we turn on the lights again?!”

— Peter Yarrow, Peter, Paul and Mary: The Song Is Love

According to Anne S. Lewis, an associate minister at the First Baptist Church of Austin in the late 1960s, the genesis of Tobe Hooper’s “lost” documentary was a performance by Peter, Paul and Mary to which Lewis had taken a group of local high school students. Lewis asked whether she could make a short documentary to use for her youth groups, and the trio agreed. Lewis then called the only production company in town, Motion Picture Productions of Texas, of which Tobe Hooper was part owner. Hooper, along with Ron and Lou Perryman, and Gary Pickle, began filming, and after a few months decided, with the writer-producer Fred Miller,[1] to make a longer documentary in the cinema verité style of D.A. Pennebaker and the Maysles brothers.[2] The hour-long feature documentary, shot and edited between 1968 and 1970, was picked up by PBS, which broadcast it sporadically over the next decade (Lewis, 1999).[3]

Since then, it has been virtually unavailable.[4] Some clips of the performances float around streaming platforms such as YouTube, but the full film has never been released on a home-video format. The saga of our search to see the film began with contacting the Toronto-based film programmer-writer-producer David Bertrand, who, along with director-writer-producer Michael McNamara, made suggestions that ultimately led us through a string of film and music collectors and experts, including the music historian Ritchie Unterberger,[5] the York University associate professor of musicology Rob Bowman, and the film collector Harry Guerro, who purportedly has the largest private collection of 35mm prints in the United States. None had heard of the film.[6] The search eventually led us to the Hooper cinephile and blogger Julius Banzon[7] and to Hooper’s friend and collaborator Stan Giesea, who had access to a VHS copy of the film. After we obtained a digitized copy from Banzon and Giesea, we found that far from being an anomaly, the documentary was crucial to understanding Hooper’s technical and thematic development, and his role as a political artist.

It is easy now to elide Peter, Paul and Mary’s radicalism amid the nostalgia for songs such as “Puff, the Magic Dragon.”[8] The Song Is Love captures Peter Yarrow speaking at a Memphis protest not long after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.[9] “He had a dream,” Yarrow says through the public-address system. “And he had started to forge that dream into a reality with love. […] We shall honor him in death as we did in life by pledging ourselves to the realization of that dream.” After footage of the Memphis protests, featuring armed police watching the predominantly Black and African American marchers, Hooper cuts to an antiwar march in Washington, DC, that features dramatic imagery of a group of protesters carrying coffins through the crowd—an echo of similar images in the opening of Eggshells. Mary Travers asks a young boy whether this is his first march. He says yes, and Mary nods, “That’s a good beginning.” The resonance in 2020 is intense.

The Song Is Love, named after the 1967 song by the trio, is an inspired combination of political documentary and experimental portraiture, organized around personal statements by each band member. Mixing performance footage with candid interviews, musings by the band members in nature and backstage, and footage of the members marching and speaking at political rallies, the film is a meditation on America’s troubled politics, at home and abroad. Interviewed about the film, Hooper averred, “It’s not a documentary, […] and it’s not necessarily ABOUT Peter, Paul and Mary, although they are featured in it” (quoted in Worley 1970).

Several candid moments serve as structuring set pieces, in which the three artists discuss freedom of artistic expression, and the political limitations on that freedom. Hooper parallels these intimate statements with the band members’ more public-facing protests for equal rights. In the earliest of these segments, Mary ponders her life as an artist:

Me, I’m me. […] I feel sometimes terribly selfish because I have for a living something that is very total, and very beautiful, and I get to say all the things I want to say, and nobody stops me from saying them. And it’s fun and it feels good. […] It’s a very total existence. And sometimes I feel sad that so many people don’t have […] that freedom in their life. That they are oppressed by their jobs, by their society, by the structure. That that beauty in them is constantly frustrated, and constantly turned inward and warped.”

While Mary’s positive vision of personal artistic expression, and what we might today call privilege, comes with a lamentation that not all Americans have the opportunity to be so creatively fulfilled, Paul Stookey is even less optimistic about personal expression. Musing about his art on a boat in the middle of a community lake, he first echoes Mary’s sentiments—“I kept thinking that what I was doing was just a natural extension of me”—then suddenly turns critical of the music industry: “It’s so easy to fool yourself working with this material. […] You try to be as real as you can onstage but you tend to forget the entire industry itself is not geared to that kind of realism.” Hooper follows this with the group performing a song sung by Paul about the industry, “I Dig Rock and Roll Music”—in Paul’s description, “a record about other records,” which somewhat disparagingly name-drops the Mamas and the Papas, the Beatles, and Donovan in its plaintive sentiments: “I dig rock and roll music; / I could really get it on in that scene. / I think I could say somethin’ if you know what I mean; / But if I really say it, the radio won’t play it / Unless I lay it between the lines.”

Such feelings about the freedom and power of art against the expectations of the industry seem portentously relevant to Hooper’s own career, since the director was politically and artistically second-guessed at every turn. Though Hooper could not have predicted his future struggles inside and outside the Hollywood juggernaut, he fashioned a documentary that consciously blended the politics of freedom and equality with investigations of free artistic self-expression under stress. The way the three-part film begins with Mary’s sentiments on the personal fulfilment of creative expression, and then moves to harsher criticism, through Paul’s thoughts on the industry’s conservatism, and later Peter’s wholesale takedown of all such musings on freedom as hopelessly naïve (discussed below) suggests at least one possible reason why Mary legally blocked the theatrical version of the film’s wider release.[10]

The cinema verité-style of interviews punctuated by footage of soundchecks and live performances dramatically shifts halfway through the film, following the trio to Memphis and DC. Hooper suddenly interpellates distorted red, white, and blue images of marching soldiers, the concert audience, and Vietnamese prisoners during a live performance of “The Great Mandella (The Wheel of Life)” (figures 1, 2, and 3). Hypermediated imagery via TV screens becomes an almost painterly strategy here, conjuring an affect related not just to the subject matter but also to the television medium through which it comes into the realm of the spectator—a theme that Hooper revisited many times in his work.

Figure 1.
Figure 2.
Figure 3.

Figures 1, 2 and 3. Hypermediated Imagery and Protesters from Peter, Paul, and Mary: The Song Is Love, dir. Tobe Hooper (Trio Concerts Incorporated, 1970, 1971)[11]

The film’s third act features scenes of Peter speaking to a group of youths. In the film’s final moments, Peter questions his role as an artist and activist:

How can I dare to talk about your finding happiness when they are dying? And “they,” who’s “they”? Our boys? There is no “our boys” in Vietnam. We are all people, human beings, and when we can stop thinking about “our boys” and [start] thinking about the people being killed uselessly because this war is an anachronism and is not solving anything, then we start to not lie to ourselves. Well, even, how do I have the audacity? How dare I talk about your finding beauty and love while that’s going on? Because, people, unless you have a vision of what it’s going to be like, what it can be like, and what beauty is, all your energy devoted to feeling the horror of what is going on in the world, is useless.”

It is tempting, again, to see such a critique as akin to Hooper’s own. Hooper, discussing his role in this film, preferred the term “designer” to “director” (Worley 1970), a suggestion that his presence behind the film’s arguments regarding art and politics was as great as or greater than that of his subjects. The Song Is Love ends with the lights of the concert venue going out unexpectedly—the second instance of this happening in the film—and with Peter’s repeated call to “turn on the lights again.” You can almost imagine Hooper, who struggled with so many troubled productions, asking the same thing throughout his career as a politicized artist.


[1] Lewis’s timeline is a bit incomplete. She dates the Peter, Paul and Mary performance March 20, 1969, but notes that Miller had been producing and writing what would become The Song Is Love since sometime in 1968.

[2] See the March 1, 1970 article for the Show World section of the Austin American-Statesman by Barbara Worley, pages 1, 26. (Tobe Hooper Papers)

[3] In a letter dated May 29, 1973 from Warren Skaaren to Norman (no last name) in support of Tobe Hooper, Skaaren mentions that the documentary was “the highest-rated program on PBS” at the time of writing (Letter from Warren Skaaren, Tobe Hooper Papers).

[4] In the same May 29, 1973 letter, Skaaren writes that the “90-minute theatrical version of that film had distribution through United Artists, but Mary filed a ‘super lawsuit’ against Peter and Paul and her settlement included the banning of the film for theatrical distribution” (Letter from Warren Skaaren, Tobe Hooper Papers).

[5] Unterberger is the author of White Light/White Heat: The Velvet Underground Day-By-Day (2009) and Won’t Get Fooled Again: The Who from Lifehouse to Quadrophenia (2011).

[6] In a personal email from August 29, 2019, Guerro writes, “It is highly doubtful that you will ever find a print of this [in] any collector [sic] hands.  I’m a huge Hooper fan but have never even heard of it.”

[7] Banzon is also the curator of The Tobe Hooper Appreciation Society blog, an incredible resource for context and insight into Hooper’s work. The site can be found at: Recent posts on the site include a rough cut of Invaders from Mars with an opening act that was excised from the film (November 20, 2019), and “It’s Nighttime,” an early treatment of Poltergeist by Hooper and Steven Spielberg (August 14,  2018).

[8] It is worth remembering that then-Vice President Spiro Agnew included “Puff the Magic Dragon” in his list of “drug songs” that he wanted banned from the radio.

[9] In a poignant moment before the speech, Hooper captures silent footage of Yarrow offering a cigarette to a black man, then lighting it for him.

[10] The band broke up in 1970, prior to the release of The Song Is Love, though they reunited occasionally throughout the 1970s to support George McGovern’s campaign, and for protests of, for example, the development of nuclear energy.

[11] The editors extend special thanks to Julius Banzon and Stan Giesea for their assistance with accessing Peter, Paul and Mary: The Song Is Love.


Excerpted from American Twilight: The Cinema of Tobe Hooper edited by Kristopher Woofter and Will Dodson, © 2021, published with permission from the University of Texas Press.

Kristopher Woofter is a faculty member in the English department at Dawson College, Montreal. He is the editor of Shirley Jackson: A Companion and coeditor of Recovering 1940s Horror Cinema: Traces of a Lost Decade.

Will Dodson is the Ashby and Strong Residential College Coordinator and an adjunct assistant professor of media studies at UNC Greensboro.

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