Why Steve Gebhardt Was Major American Filmmaker

Steve Gebhardt, the Cincinnati filmmaker who died last month of heart failure at age 78, made films with or about such fascinating cultural figures as John and Yoko, the Rolling Stones, John Sinclair, Jonas Mekas, Jazz Composers Orchestra, architect Zaha Hadid and bluegrass pioneer Bill Monroe.

Yet for all his impressive work and connections, he never really became well-known. And it was often a struggle for the films he worked on to get released, or for him to get what he felt was proper credit.

“He was very good working with other people,” said Mekas, a mentor and confidante. “Sometimes he did not get credit for it. I think he helped a lot with what John Lennon and Yoko Ono did. And he was dedicated, selfless. He did not work for credit; he just did what he liked to do and was very helpful to many people.”

After graduating from Cincinnati’s Walnut Hills High School, where he knew Jerry Rubin, Gebhardt attended University of Cincinnati. Although he received an undergraduate degree in architecture and a Master’s in community planning, he became increasingly interested in film and filmmaking.

He taught a class in it, made some short films, and also started a film society. In 1968, he helped plan the avant-garde Spring Arts Festival that brought to the school Mekas, Nam June Paik, Charlotte Moorman, Hermann Nitsch, and a Detroit band that Sinclair was managing, the MC5. While there, Mekas also started making a never-finished film about Cincinnati and used Gebhardt and his friend, commercial filmmaker Robert Fries, as assistants.

Mekas stayed in touch with Gebhardt and in 1970 invited him to New York to manage his Anthology Film Archives. And Gebhardt started making films in New York, too – capturing the Jazz Composers Orchestra rehearsing and recording the now-classic Escalator Over the Hill, composed by Carla Bley with words by Paul Haines. That film didn’t get a release until 1999, but has won praise from those who have seen it. Gebhardt had been self-distributing it at the time of his death.

Through Mekas, Gebhardt also became resident filmmaker for John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Joko Films, and he brought Fries to New York to help. They shot for Ono two of her more celebrated shorts, “Fly” and “Up Your Legs Forever.” For the 25-minute “Fly,” in which a fly wanders about a nude woman’s body, the two spent days shooting.

And Gebhardt began working with Lennon, too – serving as co-director on the 72-minute “Imagine” project, originally conceived as a made-for-television film, which IMDB has described as “a surreal, half-fiction, half-real-life footage of a day in the life of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, composed to music from John’s historic “Imagine” album and Yoko’s ‘Fly.'” Gebhardt considered it one of his favorite projects, but it has had a spotty release history and is often confused with Andrew Solt’s 1988 film portrait, “Imagine: John Lennon.”

In 1972, Gebhardt shot the One to One benefit concert that Lennon, Ono and Elephant’s Memory performed in New York. It was commissioned and broadcast as a special by ABC, and subsequently released after the singer’s death as “John Lennon: Live in New York City.”

While working with Lennon on the editing of “Imagine,” Gebhardt got involved in one of the most frustrating episodes in his career – shooting the Dec. 19, 1971 John Sinclair Freedom Rally concert in Ann Arbor after Lennon and Ono committed to appear on a bill that also included Stevie Wonder, Bob Seger, Phil Ochs, Commander Cody, Stevie Wonder and many others. Sinclair was serving a 10-year-prison term for giving two marijuana joints to undercover police; many felt the arrest was a trap and politically motivated because of his outspoken radicalism as founder of the White Panther political party.

In a previous interview with this writer for a 2007 Cincinnati CityBeat story, Gebhardt said Lennon saw his involvement as a “coming out of the political closet” and a “trial balloon for shooting concerts that John would perform on tour.”

The resulting film, “Ten for Two,” did get a brief theatrical release in England, but not in the U.S. In a 2011 story for Indiewire, Gebhardt said he believed the two didn’t want the film officially released in the U.S. for fear it would exacerbate Lennon’s struggles to avoid deportation at the time. And then, once that issue was settled, Lennon had moved past the radical phase of his career.

But Gebhardt did slowly, steadily develop a friendship with Sinclair, which resulted in the 2004 documentary “Twenty to Life: The Life & Times of John Sinclair.”

As the editing process concerning “Ten for Two” continued into 1972, Gebhardt and Fries got an offer they couldn’t refuse – put together a crew to shoot the Rolling Stones at Fort Worth and Houston on their “Exile on Main St.” tour. The resultant “Ladies and Gentlemen: The Rolling Stones” was released to theaters in 1974 with quadrophonic sound and treated like a special “roadshow” event, at least at first. It then remained largely unavailable in the U.S. until a digitally re-mastered version came out amid much fanfare in 2010.

Gebhardt had told this writer he and Fries had been recommended to the Stones by a member of Robert Frank’s crew – that director had been hired to take backstage and on-the-road footage during that tour for a documentary that has never had a formal release, “Cocksucker Blues.”

Gebhardt said he deserved a director credit, which he did not receive, on “Ladies and Gentleman” as much as Rollin Binzer, who did receive it. But he was proud to have captured the Stones at what many believe was their creative peak. “It’s the best of the heap that’s been done on them,” Gebhardt said. “It was their old songs coupled with their ‘Exile’ songs, and there wasn’t a dog amongst them.”

After time spent in Los Angeles as an architect, Gebhardt returned to Cincinnati in 1989, announcing his arrival by showing personal prints of “Ten for Two” and “Ladies and Gentlemen” at the local art house. He also resumed filmmaking – “Bill Monroe: Father of Bluegrass Music,” for which he received an NEA grant, was broadcast on TNN in 1993 and is currently available as a DVD.

At the time of his death, Gebhardt left several other projects in various stages of completion. Those include “Zaha Hadid and the Museum,” which follows the architect as she designed Cincinnati’s celebrated Contemporary Arts Center and is finished but hasn’t been released. Neither has been the completed “Hudson Tigers,” a passion project begun in the 1974 about a Michigan high-school football team.

Also completed is “La Cenerentola,” in which he followed some University of Cincinnati students to Italy for an opera production.

But unfinished is “Citizen Abel,” his portrait of iconoclastic Italian publisher Marcello Baraghini, who had published Sinclair’s writings in Italian and had a populist press called Stampa Alternativa. They had met when Baraghini sponsored an Italian screening of Gebhardt’s Sinclair documentary.

In 2012, Baraghini put together the Steve Gebhardt Film Fest in the city of Pitigliano, a two-day free event for which a banner was hung across a main street. It was a first for Gebhardt.

Talking to this writer for a Cincinnati Enquirer story at the time, Gebhardt said, “I couldn’t wrap my mind around having my name on a T-shirt. I don’t think of myself in terms of being on one.”

Rather, he said, “I consider myself one whose work has been suppressed.”

READ MORE: At 89, Jonas Mekas Is Busier Than Ever. What’s His Secret?

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