Monterey Pop

Monterey Pop
Director: D. A. Pennebaker
Features: The Mamas and the Papas, Canned Heat, Simon and Garfunkle, Big Brother and the Holding Company, Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, Eric Burdon and The Animals, Country Joy and the Fish, The Who, Otis Redding, Jimi Hendrix, Ravi Shankar
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1968
Country: U.S.
Monterey Pop Criterion Collection DVD
Monterey PopWhen the First Annual Monterey International Pop Festival was organized by music producer Lou Adler and John Philips, the frontman for the folk-pop band The Mamas & the Papas, there had never been anything like it before. While we now live in an era in which pop/rock festivals are ubiquitous all over the world, there had never been such a gathering prior to the summer of 1967 (which would come to be dubbed the “Summer of Love”). Thus, the Monterey festival was revolutionary not only for the way it planted one of the first stakes in what would become known as “The Sixties,” but it gave credence to the idea that pop music could be art.

The three-day festival, which took place at the Monterey County Fairgrounds in northern California, was filmed by documentarian D.A. Pennebaker, who was initially hired with the idea that his resulting film would be shown on network television. At the time, Pennebaker was a proponent of Direct Cinema, a specific style of documentary filmmaking that privileged the camera’s observational, rather than intrusive, nature. He had already captured part of the era’s zeitgeist with his 1967 Bob Dylan documentary Dont Look Back, but he had never made a concert film before. In fact, prior to Monterey Pop, no one had made a concert film before. Like the festival it recorded, the film became a pioneering work for others to emulate.

Despite its brief 80-minute running time, Monterey Pop indelibly captures the spirit of the festival and also displays some of the most powerful moments of rock music ever captured on film. The memorable moments from the film are numerous, and they range across the musical spectrum. The simple, quite rhythms of Simon & Garfunkle’s “The 59th Street Bridge Song” (with its soft refrain about “feeling groovy”) stands in stark contrast to The Who’s loud, rebellious anthem “My Generation,” which they conclude by smashing their instruments, an act of violent defiance the crowd was clearly not expecting. The first performance we see is The Mamas & The Papas singing “California Dreamin’,” which might as well be the festival’s theme song, and the last performance we see is Ravi Shankar’s “Raga Bhimpalasi,” whose rapid-fire sitar is a reminder that the word international in the festival’s title means something.

In-between are performances by such ’60s luminaries as Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin (performing with her original group, Big Brother & The Holding Company), and Otis Redding, who was performing in front of a predominantly white audience for the first time and subsequently became an overnight star. The film reaches its climactic moment, though, with Jimi Hendrix’s iconic performance of “Wild Thing,” which begins with his revving the distortion on his electric guitar like a motorcycle engine and ends with him literally making love to the instrument before setting it on fire, a moment that was immortalized as a Rolling Stone cover image. As a result, Hendrix solidified his star status as one of rock music’s most electrifying and original performers.

One of the most intriguing things about the festival, as it is depicted in Monterey Pop, is that it never seems particularly large. It has a tight, intimate quality that even wide shots of large audiences can’t quite dispel. Although records indicate that some 200,000 people attended the festival, after watching the film you would swear there were only a couple thousand there at most. The sense of intimacy is enhanced by Pennebaker’s decision to focus heavily on close-ups and medium close-ups of both the performers and the people in the audience. Monterey Pop frequently plays like a study in faces.

The observational nature of Pennebaker’s Direct Cinema approach has its limitations, though, as we see virtually nothing of the behind-the-scenes activities that made the festival possible (only a brief scene of John Phillips on the phone and some shots of the stage being constructed), and there are no interviews with any of the performers. What were they thinking during this momentous event? Did they know they were making history? Such questions are not answered because Pennebaker never attempts to answer them. Instead, he focuses on the music and lets it speak in its own clear, loud voice.

At its best, Monterey Pop captures a moment that might otherwise been lost in time. As the apex of the Summer of Love and a moment of unprecedented coalescence for rock music, the festival was a high point of the 1960s, a pinnacle of possibilities that were ultimately, sadly doomed. Within two years of the film’s release in 1968, the Mamas & the Papas had broken up, Otis Redding, Janis Joplin, and Jimi Hendrix were all dead, and the disastrous Rolling Stones concert at Altamont (captured in the extraordinary 1970 documentary Gimme Shelter) had literally shut the door on the perceived power of peace, love, and happiness. But, for those three days in June of 1967, it was a dream that could be had, and Monterey Pop captures it beautifully.

Monterey Pop DVD
This DVD of Monterey Pop is identical to the one previously available only as part of the Criterion Collection’s “The Complete Monterey Pop Festival” box set. The box set also included a DVD of Jimi Plays Monterey/Shake! Otis at Monterey, which is also now available separately.
Aspect Ratio1.33:1
  • English Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround
  • English DTS 5.1 Surround
  • English Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo
  • English Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural
  • Subtitles English
  • Audio commentary by director D.A. Pennebaker and festival coproducer Lou Adler
  • Video interview with Pennebaker and Adler
  • Audio interviews with festival coproducer John Phillips, festival publicist Derek Taylor, and performers Cass Elliot and David Crosby
  • Photo essay by photographer Elaine Mayes
  • Festival program
  • Original theatrical trailer
  • Radio spots
  • Essay by film critic Armond White
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateJune 13, 2006

    The digitally restored, high-definition transfer of Monterey Pop, which was taken from the original 16mm A/B camera reversal negative and a 35mm duplicate negative, was supervised by D.A. Pennebaker. The transfer maintains the film’s grain structure and reflects some of the limitations of 16mm, especially the sequences shot at night (when the performers are lit entirely with red lights, the details tend to wash out in long shots). However, this is a genuine reflection of the way the film should look. The MTI Digital Restoration System has removed most damage and dirt, but there are a few instances of vertical lines here and there, as well as more than a few hairs caught in the camera gate that couldn’t (nor shouldn’t) be removed.

    The disc’s real selling point is its phenomenal remixed soundtrack, which was done by record producer and sound engineer Eddie Kramer, who has worked with the likes of Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, and Jimi Hendrix. Working with the original 1-inch 8-track tape recordings from the festival, Kramer has produced an impressive 5.1-track mix that is available in either Dolby Digital or DTS. The music takes on new scope and power with the expanded mix, as does the enveloping nature of the audience applause (which was made possible because there was a separate microphone at the back recording the crowd). The disc includes a tech-specific essay by Kramer about how he went about remixing the sound. For purists, though, the original, unremixed stereo soundtrack is included, as well.

    Director D.A. Pennebaker and festival coproducer Lou Adler are reunited for both a screen-specific audio commentary and a 30-minute video interview. Both offer fascinating behind-the-scenes information about the organization of the festival and the creation of the film. There are all kinds of intriguing tidbits, including a part where Pennebaker talks about how none other than Truman Capote helped him make a major editing decision. More information is available in archival audio interviews with festival coproducer John Phillips, festival publicist Derek Taylor, and performers Cass Elliot and David Crosby. One of the disc’s most fascinating supplements is a comprehensive collection of photographs by Elaine Mayes. Also included is a 12-minute photo essay, in which Mayes talks about some of her most famous photographs. The disc is rounded out with a reproduction of the original festival program (it includes an extremely helpful “text” option so you can actually read the articles and descriptions), the original theatrical trailer, and five radio spots.

    Copyright ©2006 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (3.5)

    James Kendrick

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