Director: D.A. Pennebaker, Chris Hegedus (co-director of Jimi Plays Monterey)
Starring: Otis Redding, Jimi Hendrix, Ravi Shankar, The Who, Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, Simon and Garfunkel, Hugh Masekela, The Mamas and the Papas
Running Time: 78 min (Monterey Pop), 50min (Jimi Plays Monterey), 19min (Shake!: Otis at Monterey)
Year: 1968 (Monterey Pop), 1986 (Jimi Plays Monterey), 1987 (Shake!: Otis at Monterey)
BBFC Certificate: 12
I’ve mentioned my love of music in reviews before and although I was born in the early 1980s, the era of music I first seriously got into as a listener and album collector was the 60s. I greedily ate up the works of The Beatles, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones etc. as well as a lot of soul music from the time that I had a particular taste for. The Monterey Pop Festival, held between June 16-18th 1967, is often classed a pivotal moment in the ‘Summer of Love’, a period ripe with many of my all time favourite albums. Due to this, D.A. Pennebaker’s documentary of the festival has long been on my to-watch list, but unfortunately it never surfaced on DVD in the UK. I was close to importing the American Criterion DVD version, but held off due to the cost and I’m glad I did as they’ve now brought it out in the UK on Blu-Ray. To further indulge a 60s music fan like myself, they’ve gone several steps further than simply releasing the original documentary though. They’ve put together a 3 Blu-Ray set with Pennebaker’s 1968 film, the Jimi Plays Monterey documentary, which provides Hendrix’s full legendary performance at the festival, Shake! Otis at Monterey, which has Otis Redding’s complete recorded set, and then a further 2 hours worth of extended and extra performances from the likes of Simon and Garfunkel, Big Brother and the Holding Company (with Janis Joplin), Jefferson Airplane, The Byrds, The Who and The Mamas and the Papas, to name but a few. With a host of special features to back these up, including several commentaries, it’s an extraordinary package that I was eager to work through and I made sure to cover every nook and cranny.
The festival was important for several reasons. Other than playing a key role in the beginning of the summer of love, it introduced the likes of Janis Joplin, Otis Redding and Ravi Shankar (or traditional Indian music in general) to a wider audience. It also helped Jimi Hendrix and The Who break into America after finding success in the UK. Those two acts also provided iconic rock moments for the film. The Who trashed the stage in their performance, which was practically unheard of back then. Hendrix, in a similar vein, set fire to his guitar after humping it in a sexually charged show. Due to its smaller scale it’s been overshadowed by Woodstock over the years, but arguably Monterey Pop played a more important role in the history of rock and pop music and launched the careers of some of the latter festival’s key players.
Woodstock also got its own popular documentary made at the time and I couldn’t help but compare the two when watching Pennebaker’s Monterey Pop, as I’ve seen Woodstock a couple of times, albeit over a decade ago. The differences between the two films seemed to reflect the differences between the festivals, with Woodstock containing more flashy camera and editing effects, as well as an extended running time, whereas Monterey Pop is tighter and more naturally presented. Pennebaker eschews any graphics, voiceover or announcer clips for the most part and uses very few interviews, instead letting the music do the talking. Most of these bands became so big at the time, that you’d likely know who everyone was anyway. I certainly recognise most of them, although there were a couple I didn’t know.
As in Don’t Look Back, which Pennebaker made less than a year previously, Monterey Pop has a rough and ready, largely handheld style of camerawork that doesn’t alway look pretty, but captures many beautiful little moments. Some of the audience shots in particular are as vital as those of the artists in capturing the atmosphere. In general, the film seems to capture the mood and setting perfectly. You feel like you’re at the festival and it made me long for that to be true.
It being a concert/festival film though, the music has to be good to make it a worthwhile experience and thankfully the music is absolutely amazing. There are no weak links in the impressive roster of artists. All are impressive in their own way and there’s a nice mix of styles to keep things interesting. The film rarely lingers on one artist either, just allowing one song for the most part, so if you’re not a fan of any of them you needn’t reach for the fast forward button. The one artist who’s given a particularly large slot is Ravi Shankar, whose raga is played here in pretty much its entirety (15 mins or so). Supposedly Pennebaker was tempted to trim it to a similar length to the rest of the acts, but it seemed disrespectful to do so and the performance was so electrifying it made a powerful finale to the film. This length is softened too by a montage of footage taken around the other areas of the festival.
Hendrix and Redding are two of the strongest performers so it’s great to have longer versions of their sets included in the package. The extra features extend a lot of the other artists’ performances too, but the two bonus films are presented as their own packages. The Hendrix film even begins with a voiceover skimming over his career and life as a whole and includes some archive material on top of the Monterey performance. The Redding film is just the performance as it was, so feels more like the deleted scenes in presentation, but he put on a damned good show so it’s great to have it separated like this.
Monterey Pop is a rare case of a film I’d been desperate to see for years fully living up to my expectations. Watching so many of the artists I’ve loved listening to for years perform together during three magical days of music was utter bliss to me. Pennebaker does a wonderful job of capturing the atmosphere too, allowing for a living, breathing presentation that I could happily bask in for hours. And with so much extra material on the discs, you can do just that!
The Complete Monterey Pop Festival is out on Blu-Ray in the UK on 18th December, released by The Criterion Collection. The transfer makes the film look as good as possible, given the often quite rough, low-tech source material. As for audio, I watched with the 5.1 mixes and they sounded wonderfully rich.
The film is presented in a 3-disc set with an incredibly comprehensive set of special features, which include:
- Restored high-definition digital transfers of Jimi Plays Monterey and Shake! Otis at Monterey
- Alternate soundtracks for all three films featuring 5.1 mixes by legendary recording engineer Eddie Kramer, presented in DTS-HD Master Audio
- THE OUTTAKE PERFORMANCES: Two hours of performances not included in Monterey Pop, from the Association, Big Brother and the Holding Company, the Blues Project, the Byrds, Country Joe and the Fish, the Electric Flag, Jefferson Airplane, Al Kooper, the Mamas and the Papas, Laura Nyro, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Simon and Garfunkel, Tiny Tim, and the Who
- Audio commentaries by Pennebaker and festival producer Lou Adler, and music critics and historians Charles Shaar Murray and Peter Guralnick - New interviews with Adler and Pennebaker
- Chiefs (1968), a short film by cameraman Richard Leacock, which played alongside Monterey Pop during its inaugural theatrical run
- Interviews from 2002 with Adler and Pennebaker and with Phil Walden, Otis Redding’s manager
- Audio interviews with festival producer John Phillips, festival publicist Derek Taylor, and performers Cass Elliot and David Crosby
- Photo-essay by photographer Elaine Mayes - Monterey International Pop Festival scrapbook
- PLUS: A booklet featuring essays by critics Michael Chaiken, Armond White, David Fricke, Barney Hoskyns, and Michael Lydon
This wonderful set provides as much coverage as possible from the festival. The outtake performances are a joy to behold and it’s a testament to the quality of the festival and films that there’s such an impressive roster of acts that didn’t make the cut as well as extra songs from those that did.
The commentaries are excellent too, particularly the Adler and Pennebaker one, who strike a nice balance between offering insight into the festival itself and the production process. Likewise, the collection of interviews are another fountain of information. The photo-essay gives an alternative visual record of the festival and Chiefs is a fascinating, politically pointed short documentary that’s worth a look.
It’s all fans of that era of music would ever want or need from the groundbreaking festival and film. Criterion have outdone themselves yet again and I can’t recommend it highly enough.