A major goal for this marathon was to check out legendary documentaries that I need to watch as a music fan. I’ve seen The Last Waltz, Gimme Shelter, and others, but there still are unseen giants. A prime example is D.A. Pennebaker’s Monterey Pop, which covers the famous 1967 festival. The lineup includes household names like Jimi Hendrix, Simon & Garfunkel, Otis Redding, and so many others. Putting all these huge talents in one place was a stroke of genius, particularly in the pre-Woodstock era. Modern festivals like Coachella and Lollapalooza owe plenty to this San Francisco event. Critics and music fans rave about this film, but it isn’t as well-known as some other concert documentaries. Criterion has released the entire show on Blu-ray and DVD, but I’m just checking out the original movie. Clocking in a brisk 79 minutes, it gives an exciting overview without overstaying its welcome.
The three-day Monterey Pop Festival occurred in 1967 from June 16 to June 18 at the Monterey County Fairgrounds in Monterey, California. More than 50,000 people attended, and the numbers were much larger for the headliners. Amazingly, nearly all the money went to charity. This was a showcase for artists like The Who and Otis Redding and made them overnight stars in this country. What’s amazing is that Redding died six months later, and headliners The Mamas & the Papas broke up soon afterwards. While signaling the dawn of a new era, this concert also marked the end of some remarkable acts.
Pennebaker (Don’t Look Back) brilliantly uses a “fly on the wall” approach to give the feeling of being in the crowd. His cameras provide clear views of the band along with an intimate look at the crowd. It’s a subtle approach that captures the energy of being in Monterey without going over the top. The focus remains on the artists, and he doesn’t waste time on clever tricks. Pennebaker also doesn’t slow the pace and moves rapidly through the classic bands. He goes from Jefferson Airplane to Janis Joplin, Eric Burdon & the Animals, and The Who in record time. All of these bands could carry an entire show, but they get only a song or two to prove their mettle. We hear some hits, but the choices are designed to set a particular mood instead of giving us the expected showstoppers.
This concert might be less raucous than your typical rock show today, but it includes some chaotic performances from charismatic icons. The Who close their set with a blistering rendition of “My Generation” and then decimate their equipment. Later on, Jimi Hendrix plays “Wild Thing” and sets his guitar on fire while it’s still playing. Destroying equipment has become a cliché, but it still had an impact at this point. Another magnetic performer is Jefferson Airplane’s Grace Slick, who sings with a wide-eyed intensity that’s hard to match. On “High Flyin’ Bird” and “Today”, she powerfully grabs our attention. There are a few exceptions that are less thrilling, however. The Mamas & the Papas are a bit awkward; it’s possible I’ve been spoiled by the studio versions. The inclusion of Country Joe & the Fish is also odd given the participants that aren’t shown. I’m viewing this with knowledge of bands’ staying power, so it probably isn’t fair given the popularity at the time.
There are few disappointments in the 15 songs performed, and most would be the highlight of a lesser film. The most exciting performer is Otis Redding, who belts out “Shake” and “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” and gets a huge response from the crowd. Eric Burdon & the Animals do justice to the Rolling Stones’ “Paint it Black” with some wonderful guitar work. The film ends with a lengthy song from Ravi Shankar during his afternoon performance. The audience sits rapt as he plays his trademark sitar for more than 10 minutes. It’s an intriguing way to end a movie that’s largely consisted of upbeat numbers. Pennebaker gives us an hour of thrills and then allows us to cool off with Shankar’s final song. This refreshing approach ends the movie on just the right note.
Monterey Pop takes just the right approach to documenting a concert festival. With help from talented camera operators like Albert Maysles and Richard Leacock, he puts us right into the venue. The crowd footage and brief interviews are enough to create the right atmosphere without distracting from the performances. It’s no surprise that this movie became so influential to both the music and movie worlds. It ranks among the best concert films and is a must-see for anyone interested in either medium.