Review: 'Monterey Pop'

After 50 years, the seminal concert doc gets remastered release
The 'Monterey Pop' documentary captured seminal moments in rock history and redefined the concert film genre.

Though years before Woodstock, the Monterey Pop Festival was just as important—it's just that the importance of a cultural event mathematically increases with its proximity to New York. Staged 50 years ago, this last weekend at the Monterey County Fairgrounds, the fest was preserved by the innovative documentary maker D.A. Pennebaker (Don't Look Back) and a team including Richard Leacock and Albert Maysles (Gimme Shelter.)

Back in a 4k restoration, the film now has a preamble. Pennebaker (now age 92) describes how John Phillips of The Mamas and the Papas and Phillips' manager Lou Adler created a charitable nonprofit to get everyone working for scale. This, in Pennebaker's view, made Monterey a show among equals. The sound system was unusually good, too. Newly built sound-synchronizing cameras conquered the way a live performance was customarily filmed—with the camera nailed down, front and center.

The collective camera here is male, cruising the pretty blondes in the audience. But in immediacy and effect, it's revolutionary. The close-ups from telescopic lenses get almost abstract: Otis Redding silhouetted and nimbused, lens flares from the house lights diffusing his breath on a frosty night. (It was full June gloom on the coast; never forget that the fabled Summer of Love was rainy.) Caught on the fly, the faces match the psychedelic lightshow patterns by the group Headlights.

The Jefferson Airplane covers Judy Henske's "High Flying Bird" and survives a tech problem—Grace Slick's vocals not being picked up by the mike as she sings backup vocals on "Today," one of the sturdiest and prettiest love songs of its age. Flown in from London, The Who are disappointing. They give up "My Generation" complete with guitar smash...the mic-drop of 1967.

The best of The Who can be seen elsewhere in footage of the 1970 Leeds festival. The best of this film is Jimi Hendrix doing "Wild Thing." Chomping gum, ludicrously handsome in a yellow pirate shirt and a Central Asian vest, Hendrix plays some free-rock—a few licks from "Strangers in the Night" of all things, with behind the back fingering and oceans of feedback. Finally a kneeling guitar sacrifice, with goodbye kiss to the soon-to-be-martyred instrument. It looks as fresh as the Who's guitar smashing looks like shtick. (And it's worth the destruction to see the reaction shots of the audience to Hendrix's act, full of wild surprise and a bit of fear.) There's nothing like that moment when you see a performer from 50 years ago and they look surprising today.

This tribute to the various schools of pop ends with something classical: a long Ravi Shankar raga. The cameras pick up the faces of some people tripping balls—the customary state for Westerners listening to Indian classical in those days—but the close-up sticks with Shankar as he frets the treacherous sitar, with its two dozen or so tuning pegs. Shankar's musicianship is received by the crowd as a primordial yet ultimate Telecaster solo; the oldest music displayed here manifesting itself as a culmination of the styles.

The mortality rate is chilling—Redding, Hendrix, Joplin, Keith Moon, Cass Elliot and Brian Jones, seen in passing. It's troubling that Hendrix opens for sweet pop stars like The Mamas and Papas. The Mamas and the Papas aren't that bad, even though they perform that dreaded song about California, used in the Lotto ads lately. They're sweeter on "Got a Feeling" a dirge for dying love, iced with spine-tingling electric harpsichord. It plays over a montage of lovers, clinging, sauntering, or snuggled in sleeping bags. The last line of the song: "The joke's on you."

As it would prove to be. With its banners touting love and flowers, Monterey Pop shows the tribes before they went their separate ways. In 2017, the movie has the air of the Shire birthday party in those last moments before Gandalf arrives to discuss Mr. Baggins' jewelry collection. All and sundry were about to take a long walk into Mordor. The next year, 1968, would bring assassinations, escalation, tin soldiers and Nixon coming ... and so, on to the road of today.

Monterey Pop
UR, 79 Mins.
Camera Cinemas

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