A new era in popular music deserves a new era in filmmaking. That’s the basis of the perfect, fortuitous match-up between rock and cinema in D.A. Pennebaker’s Monterey Pop. When Pennebaker and his 16mm filmmaking team came on board to cover the 1967 festival, director Pennebaker (then age 42) was older than most of the participating musicians, yet he shared with organizers John Phillips and Lou Adler a vanguard belief in encouraging American pop culture’s—not simply youth culture’s—divergence from the old, familiar performance and theatrical traditions. This was not only the period in which the Hollywood movie musical waned but also when rock concert promoters had found a countervailing way to bring artists and performers together, as if to justify entrepreneurship by celebrating a social and artistic spirit. Yes, it was the “Summer of Love” for hippies expressing a pacifist alternative to middle-class strictures and the Vietnam War, but it was also the era of the French New Wave and the New American Cinema pursuit toward more realistic filmmaking. Purpose, innovation, and exuberance combusted in one rocking, Northern California site.
After the 1966 chart success of The Mamas and the Papas’ “California Dreamin’,” Phillips aligned himself with the San Francisco hippie and pop scene as immortalized in his composition of the Scott McKenzie hit “San Francisco.” Phillips’ lyrics “There’s a new generation/With a new explanation/People in motion” pronounced the impetus for a movie style that Pennebaker would use to reclaim California rock from the insipid ’60s beach party movies and even the exploitative teen flicks of the ’50s. Pennebaker had established his pop credentials with the 1967 Bob Dylan film Dont Look Back, capturing a rock artist’s impudent energy, documenting the scene’s vibrant, unpredictable nature. People in motion. That phrase precisely described a project that would expand the forward-looking spontaneity of the Dylan film. For Monterey Pop, Pennebaker emphasizes the on-stage personas and the mercurial moments of performance and audience interaction. People in motion was not only evocative, it expressed an aesthetic.
Pennebaker’s new-style concert film demonstrated a blend of experimental and documentary filmmaking techniques that came out of a movement known as Direct Cinema. The instantaneous recording of action and behavior gave preeminence to truth (cinema vérité). It defined M.I.T. graduate Pennebaker’s philosophy and his association with other contemporary Direct Cinema documentarians Albert Maysles and Richard Leacock. Fascinated by the turbulence of ’60s culture, Pennebaker brought to Monterey Pop the same adventurous sensibility he made evident in, among many other timely films, You’re Nobody Till Somebody Loves You, Beyond the Law (Norman Mailer’s speculative foray into filmmaking as an existential gamble), and One A.M. (a feature begun in collaboration with Jean-Luc Godard that Pennebaker subsequently finished).
Monterey Pop memorializes what in ’60s parlance would be called “a happening.” Based upon Pennebaker’s innate social engagement and his affinity for pop music culture, the artist/audience rapport on screen results from a balance of affectionate and distanced observation but without condescension. A brief, behind-the-scenes report on Phillips and wife Michelle on the telephone organizing the event (“I’m waiting for Dionne”) is soon replaced by a priceless moment of ’60s awe as a blonde fan waits for the music festival to begin. She’s breathless and, years later, seems endearingly optimistic: “Haven’t you ever been to a love-in? Gawd! I think it’s gonna be like Easter and Christmas and New Year’s and your birthday all together, ya know? The vibrations are just gonna be floating everywhere!” Not coincidentally, it’s reminiscent of the “Miss 19 Consumer Product” interview segment in Godard’s 1966 Masculine-Feminine, illustrating the same up-to-the-minute, sympathetic fascination with a single person embodying a cultural phenomenon.
Scott McKenzie’s dulcet “San Francisco”—still the most plaintively sung flower-power anthem—kicks in right afterwards, a simultaneous invocation and invitation to the place of peace, love and music. McKenzie himself is not on screen but his vocal presence (“Summertime will be a love-in there”) is crucial. McKenzie’s pure tenor, heard over footage of the musicians’ arrivals and the roadies’ set-up, affirms the fan’s ga-ga enthusiasm; since the time of the film’s release in 1968 that affirmation has been infectious. Monterey Pop is of importance in movie history because it helped reconfigure American movie musicals from that generic convention of private fantasy familiar from 42nd Street, The Red Shoes, Singin’ in the Rain, and The Sound of Music to a new genre of musical film based on young adult social ritual. This marks the major distinction between Monterey Pop and its closest forerunner, Bert Stern’s 1959 Jazz on a Summer’s Day. That classic document of the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival did not have the good fortune of also recording social change; but Pennebaker benefited from Stern’s tasteful example of photographing popular musicianship candidly yet as more than mere reportage. The ingenuity of Pennebaker’s approach is reflected in the later Woodstock and Gimme Shelter, but it’s freshest here.
Monterey Pop’s motif of people in motion accounts for the loose, give-and-take editing between spectacle and spectator. The audience shots are bliss-outs: people groovin’. This sense of a moment captured, of instantaneous excitement, defined the new movie musical. On-stage projection of psychedelic lava lamp and kaleidoscopic designs during Hugh Masekela’s performance used Op-art effects to represent the pop vibe just as Bert Stern made the sail reflections in water oscillate to improvised rhythm in Jazz on a Summer’s Day and John Boorman featured the brave new world of Pop Art in the nightclub sequence of Point Blank. During Janis Joplin’s “Ball and Chain,” Pennebaker cuts to and holds on Cass Elliot—open-mouthed, captivated (“Wow!”). The close framing isolates a dusk performance so that it looks like nighttime, an event occurring within its own aura. For “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” Otis Redding works the crowd—“Do it just one more time” (four times, in fact). He’s photographed within an incandescent halo that fills the screen in blinding whiteness. Jimi Hendrix’s “Wild Thing” paroxysm is keyed to Hendrix’s red pants and inflammatory guitar abuse, followed by The Mamas and the Papas’ “Gotta Feelin’”—performed in a folky trance style later acknowledged by the Bill, Mary, and Tom trio in Nashville where Cristina Raines as Mary hugs herself like Michelle, swaying in isolation to a song about romantic suspicion. It’s poignant now to know that “Gotta Feelin’” expressed the group’s own internal fissures, just as the multicultural bliss of the Monterey Pop Festival was also temporary.
One long, hand-held shot (featuring perhaps the first-ever view of a steadicam harness) shows a crowd queued on the sidelines. They’re familiar with the camera, but indifferent to its presence. Still participating in the event, this youth audience is not media-hungry, just enthralled by Ravi Shankar’s raga intensity and a moment that is undeniably theirs—as would be that same generation’s anti-war march on the Pentagon several months later. Pennebaker’s final segment shows American youth opening themselves to hear Shankar’s music from another world, but also learning to commit one’s ongoing experience to film. As one stage act gives way to another in Monterey Pop, with audiences basking in each performers’ glow, the utopian longing behind Phillips’ “California Dreamin’” becomes a fleeting reality.
Armond White's film criticism has been published internationally. His collected pop culture criticism appears in the book The Resistance: Ten Years of Pop Culture That Shook the World. This piece originally appeared in the Criterion Collection’s 2002 DVD edition of Monterey Pop.