Murray Lerner, a documentary filmmaker who captured key moments in the history of rock-and-roll, including Bob Dylan’s first electrically amplified performance in 1965, and who won an Academy Award for “Mao to Mozart,” a 1980 film about violinist Isaac Stern in China, died Sept. 2 at his home in Queens. He was 90.
The cause was kidney failure, said his son, Noah Lerner.
Beginning in 1963, Mr. Lerner went to the Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island for three years running, drawn by what he saw as a burgeoning youth movement built around a changing musical culture. In particular, he was captivated by Dylan’s evolution from playing acoustic folk music to amplified rock.
His camera was rolling when Dylan “plugged in” at the 1965 festival, much to the dismay of folk purists. Dylan’s electrifying performance of “Maggie’s Farm” changed the direction of rock-and-roll.
Contrary to popular lore, “there were very few boos that I could hear on the original soundtrack,” Mr. Lerner told the New York Daily News in 1998. “I don’t know whether the catcalls were there and I didn’t hear them or whether they’re an exaggeration of memory.”
The resulting film, “Festival,” received an Academy Award nomination in 1968.
“It felt like a new world was opening up, and Dylan was going to be the high priest,” Mr. Lerner told Britain’s Daily Telegraph newspaper in 2007, when he released a film focused strictly on Dylan, “The Other Side of the Mirror.”
In 1970, Mr. Lerner moved to the Isle of Wight in Britain in time to film one of the last great rock festivals, which drew 600,000 spectators, more than at earlier festivals in Woodstock, N.Y., and Altamont, Calif. It included some of the final performances of Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison and the Doors.
Mr. Lerner’s film about the festival, “Message to Love” — not released until 1997 because of musical rights and funding — was named by Rolling Stone magazine as one of the 40 greatest rock documentaries ever made. In many ways, it portrayed the collapse of the youthful idealism Mr. Lerner had seen a few years earlier at Newport.
He showed concert promoters cursing into telephones and counting out fistfuls of cash in various currencies piled on the floor. Some performers refused to take the stage without being paid in advance.
Mr. Lerner had eight cameras at the Isle of Wight and made 11 documentaries from his footage, including films on Miles Davis, Leonard Cohen and Hendrix, who died 19 days after his performance. Shortly before his death, Mr. Lerner completed his final project, “Both Sides Now: Joni Mitchell Live at the Isle of Wight 1970,” which will be released later this year and poignantly captures a tearful Mitchell pleading with a hostile crowd.
Nine years after the Isle of Wight, Mr. Lerner took his cameras to China to film a tour by Stern, one of the first western classical musicians to perform there after the death of leader Mao Zedong in 1976.
Mr. Lerner showed Stern in concert, as a teacher and as a wry observer of Chinese life. He marveled at the groups of people doing exercises in unison. “On the other hand,” Stern said, “they can’t play Mozart.”
Newsweek film critic David Ansen described “Mao to Mozart,” which won the 1981 Oscar for best documentary, as “a stirring, lovely work that not only offers unusual glimpses of Chinese culture but also captures the teaching process as few films have.”
Murray Lerner was born May 8, 1927, in Philadelphia and grew up in New York City. He was raised by a single mother in a poor, Orthodox Jewish household.
As a high school student in Brooklyn, Mr. Lerner won first prize a citywide poetry contest. He earned a scholarship to Harvard University, where he majored in English and helped found a film society before graduating in 1948.
Inspired by Japanese pictographs and the films of Russian director Sergei Eisenstein to explore visual ways storytelling, Mr. Lerner began making short films in the early 1950s. His first feature-length movie, “Secrets of the Reef” (1956), contained spectacular undersea shots taken by Mr. Lerner in the waters off Florida and the Bahamas.
In 1966, he made a behind-the-scenes documentary about Yale University, where he taught in the 1970s and helped launch a film-studies program.
Mr. Lerner’s Oscar for “Mao to Mozart” proved to be a mixed blessing.
“Honestly, it was the worst thing that could have happened to him,” said his son, a writer and producer for HBO. “He was a gritty, reality-based New York filmmaker — then Hollywood came calling.”
Mr. Lerner moved to Hollywood, where he “took a lot of meetings,” in his son’s words, and produced films for Walt Disney World’s Epcot Center. Studios were interested in his early work in 3-D filmmaking, but after four years Mr. Lerner moved back to New York to work on his independent films.
Survivors include his wife of 56 years, the former Judith Levine, and their son, Noah Lerner, both of Queens; a half brother; and two grandchildren.
In almost all of his films, Mr. Lerner is present as cinematographer and interviewer. He deliberately sought a different approach from the hands-off, cinema verité style of, say, other celebrated rock-and-roll documentarians such as the Maysles brothers and D.A. Pennebaker.
“I tried to make music with the camera, to have the camera be a participant of the action,” he told the Boston Herald in 2002. “The camera isn’t just a fly on the wall. My theory is that the only valid truth is the interaction between object and subject.”