What is it about ’60s milestone films that end up eliciting a “guess you had to be there” response from the newcomer years later? You can know how significant and influential a film was, but if it doesn’t grab you, it doesn’t grab you. That’s that. D.A. Pennebaker’s Monterey Pop has been called the first rock-concert movie, and indeed the Monterey Pop Festival, which kicked off 1967’s famous “summer of love,” has been described as the first real rock festival. It introduced or mainstreamed a lot of titanic acts. And hours of footage that didn’t make it into the 79-minute theatrical print were later unearthed on the Criterion box set. But we are discussing the film and what it offers. And to these eyes it plays today like a dry run for 1970’s Woodstock and Gimme Shelter, without the epic scope of the former or the Dionysian drama of the latter.
Pennebaker’s cameramen (there were seven) zoom very close in, very tight. As a result, the often animated performers, especially Janis Joplin, bob and weave in and out of the frame, and you get to see more of Janis’ bad skin than you ever wanted to. Joplin weighs in with a typically volcanic performance (on “Ball and Chain”), and occasionally Pennebaker figures out what shots to use; I was charmed by a close-up of Joplin’s feet moving excitedly to the beat. She was already heavily into the drug abuse that would kill her three short years later, but she looks unspoiled here, uncomplicatedly happy. The film caught her and her band before their first album even hit stores; it was a kind of coming-out party for her, and Cass Elliot of the Mamas and the Papas is seen in the audience looking bowled over by Joplin’s passion.
The other big draw is Jimi Hendrix, doing his now-iconic barbecued-guitar bit. What song does he perform, though? Not “Foxy Lady,” not “Purple Haze,” not “Hey Joe” or “The Wind Cries Mary” — all of which he played at Monterey. No, the song Hendrix plays in the film is a cover of “Wild Thing.” Yes, this was the song that led into the famous guitar-torching, but couldn’t Pennebaker have fudged a little bit? Who wants to hear Jimi do a cover, however experimental and accomplished, of a Troggs tune? (Yes, the song originated with the Wild Ones. The point remains.)
We have the Who doing a perfunctory “My Generation” (with Pete Townshend wrecking his guitar as if it were expected of him), Simon and Garfunkel almost washed out by red lighting on “The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy),” and Eric Burdon and the Animals sounding bored covering the Stones’ “Paint It Black.” One can’t help thinking there were better performances by these bands that Pennebaker didn’t include. And yet … and yet … he gives a sizable, and by “sizable” I mean “fucking endless,” amount of time to Ravi Shankar’s sitar noodling, which might have appealed to stoned audience members but, to a stone-straight viewer today, will feel as if it goes on for eight, maybe nine years. You could leave the room, take a leisurely dump, come back and Shankar would still be up there wanking away. Pennebaker had time for this and not more Who or Jimi?
The black performers come off best. Hugh Masekela does something primal, harsh and angular with his “Bajabula Bonke (The Healing Song),” and Otis Redding comes on for two ecstatic numbers (the second is nearly ruined by a light shining tiresomely right into the camera, pretentiously turning Redding into abstract art). The audience seems primarily white and young, and Pennebaker focuses on a lot of sexy painted faces in the crowd, all of whom would be in their sixties today. What we don’t get is the sense of community that the much larger crowd and expansive three-hour length of Woodstock offered to viewers. There are some heavy hitters here, many making their major American stage debuts. Monterey Pop is therefore invaluable as a musical document. Too bad the events weren’t documented by a true artist — like Bert Stern, Michael Wadleigh, Scorsese or Demme — but by a point-and-shoot man who himself said he made “semimusical reality things.”