Held fifty years ago this month on the virtual solstice of the Summer of Love, the Monterey International Pop Festival was a dazzling counterculture coming-out party. Its infectious good vibes and series of revelatory performances that soon passed into rock ’n’ roll legend were captured by documentarian D. A. Pennebaker, fresh off the release of his Bob Dylan film Don’t Look Back. He was assisted by the likes of Richard Leacock, Albert Maysles and Barry Feinstein. The ensuing Monterey Pop movie (released a year later in 1968) was a serendipitous union of this Direct Cinema school of filmmaking and a multi-faceted music revolution that was just reaching its early apex. They not only vividly recorded the near-mythic stage shows of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Otis Redding and the Who, but their unobtrusive yet intimate photography of the idealistic audience reveals the Sixties youth movement at a time of its peak promise, in indelible images that are remarkably poignant to look back on a half-century later.
The unabashed romantic tone of Monterey Pop kicks in right from the opening sequence as the fresh-faced crowd filters into the county fairground to the tune “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Some Flowers in Your Hair)” Scott McKenzie’s premeditated hippie anthem that was written by Los Angelino John Phillips to promote the festival which was held seventy miles due south of Haight-Ashbury. (Phillips co-promoted the festival with Lou Adler and Beatles publicist Derek Taylor). The Golden State glorification continues with the film’s first live performance: Phillips’ Mamas and the Papas doing a surprisingly forceful “California Dreaming” complete with shredding guitar solo. There’s hardly a baby-boomer to be found who doesn’t know something of the four famous Monterey Moments mentioned above: the Who’s pre-punk working class anthem “My Generation” ending in a cacophony of smashed equipment, Janis Joplin’s no-holds-barred belting on the bluesy “Ball and Chain,” soul singer Otis Redding’s electrifying set winning over the “love crowd” in a career peak just six months before dying in a plane crash, and, of course, Jimi Hendrix’s epic eroticisation of the hitherto harmless ditty “Wild Thing.” The Seattle native had gone to England to make his name, and here reintroduced himself to America with a stunning display of six-string mastery that culminated with the famous fiery sacrifice of his instrument.
Moving beyond these iconic peaks, viewers revisiting Monterey Pop may be just as taken by the sequencing of Canned Heat/Simon and Garfunkel/Hugh Masekela that suggest early on the diversity of talents already on offer in the hothouse of creativity that was the 1960s. For the trippers there is the acid-drenched ambience of Jefferson Airplane, Country Joe and the Fish and Eric Burdon’s New Animals, with their violin-laced reworking of “Paint it Black.” Despite the jumps in mood and genre, Pennebaker, with valuable assists from editors Nina Schulman and Mary Lampson, keeps the film fluidly paced with the help of the seamlessly blended crowd close-ups that run throughout its brisk eighty minutes. Not only was the gap between performer and fan a lot narrower then (Mama Cass, Brian Jones, Mike Bloomfield, Mickey Dolenz and Hendrix are all variously seen as appreciative down-front fans), there is an overall sense that the sanguine generational message is being best lived out by the festival goers. Beatific smiles, soulful gazes, attentive listening and gentle PDAs are the order of the day, in lovingly presented montages. It seems rather too obvious to say that you could never duplicate this nowadays, when at least two-thirds of the audience would either be mugging for the cameras or staring down at their “smart” phones.
This is not to suggest a utopia. The Monterey Pop Festival was born amid an L.A./Frisco rivalry so contentious it may have come to blows at some point. The SoCal contingent were derided as overly commercial but saw themselves as more professional, while the Haight hippies (who of course hated the Scott McKenzie hit) took surplus pride in their more organically-developed scene. Also, more than a few fans and journalists were indignant at the Who’s (and even Jimi’s) wreckful stage antics. And despite Otis Redding’s triumphant appearance, the hoped-for rainbow coalition with the day’s R&B singers never really panned out (in an early scene we see John and Michelle Phillips trying in vain to reach Dionne Warwick on the phone). For Pennebaker, the finished film would hold only one gaffe: during Marty Balin’s showcase Airplane ballad “Today” the only working camera spent the whole song keyed in on Grace Slick’s exalted profile. He decided to go ahead with it even after discovering the goof. “We thought we could get by on psychedelic,” he said in an interview years later. Nope.
Today the filmed events of the Monterey Pop Festival shine brighter than ever, unencumbered by the muddy fields, overstressed logistics and troublemakers of later high-profile festivals (the Hell’s Angels are glimpsed briefly, politely taking their seats about fifty rows back). And now that we moved on from the Age of Aquarius to the Age of the Criterion Collection, there’s naturally more of it to enjoy. The 3-disc Criterion box from 2009 features the original film, a second disc of the complete Jimi and Otis sets and a third of many artists that didn’t make the final cut like the Byrds, the Blues Project, the Paul Butterfield Band, Al Kooper and Laura Nyro. The booklet contains several pieces that will be enjoyed by rockologists, including one emphasizing the dovetailing of two disciplines in a flux of innovation. “A new era in popular music deserves a new era in filmmaking,” writes Armond White in his related essay.
It was certainly a bold choice for Pennebaker to conclude his film with an eighteen-minute raga by classically trained Indian musicians. He uses the first half of Ravi Shankar’s piece to survey the colorful crowd one more time and the exotic sitar sound is like a clarion call of the psychedelic age. The view turns to the stage as the piece gradually intensifies and Shankar repeatedly eggs on his two associates to increase the tempo, and the crowd stirs from its contemplative mood, realizing they are witnessing something special. In one of the most exciting concert sequences ever filmed, Shankar brings the raga to a climax with an inconceivably rapid flurry of notes as the camera turns back to the audience just in time to witness them jumping out of their seats as one in ecstatic applause. In the end, it’s this sort of moment that makes Monterey Pop so enduring—it’s still all about the music at this juncture, and the festival is not weighted down by the heavy claims of “world-changer” foisted on Woodstock. The audience and the artists were still discovering each other back then and Pennebaker’s vivid portrait of a receding golden age remains one of rock filmdom’s greatest artifacts.