This weekend marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Monterey International Pop Festival, “a watershed mega-concert that introduced America to the Jimi Hendrix Experience, the Who and Ravi Shankar; and also provided the first big-time platform for Janis Joplin and Otis Redding,” as G. Allen Johnson notes in the San Francisco Chronicle. For Monterey Pop (1968), D. A. Pennebaker armed himself and five other cinematographers, including Richard Leacock and Albert Maysles, with lightweight cameras to capture not only the performers and the roaming crowds numbering into the tens of thousands but also what essentially amounted to the dawn of the “Summer of Love.”
It lasted longer than a season but no more than two years. Albert Maysles, his brother David, and Charlotte Zwerin recorded its end in Gimme Shelter (1970), a document of the Rolling Stones’ 1969 North American tour culminating with the infamously disastrous free concert at the Altamont Speedway near San Francisco.
But 1967 is an anniversary to celebrate, and “Pennebaker’s essential landmark of Direct Cinema is back in U.S. theaters,” writes Matthew Eng for Little White Lies, “arriving on screens in a pristine 4K restoration of the director’s 35mm print, which was enlarged from its original 16mm for the initial theatrical release. At less than 80 minutes, Monterey Pop is a breezy, compact account of an invaluable juncture in music history. . . . Monterey Pop has only grown more fascinating in the decades since its debut, if only because Pennebaker, who helmed the experimental Bob Dylan documentary Dont Look Back directly prior to this, clearly sees these flower children as something deeper but also more ordinary than eccentric archetypes of a generation.”
The Village Voice’s Melissa Anderson singles out a moment during the Jefferson Airplane set when “the camera goes almost behind [Grace] Slick’s head, zooming in so tight that strands from her brunet mane nearly fill the entire frame. The effect is one of estranging intimacy, bringing us impossibly near to these sublime beings onstage and yet somehow ensuring that they remain forever mysterious, magical, and untouchable.”
“Monterey Pop ushered in a new age for American music,” writes historian Kevin D. Greene for the New York Times. “But just as important, it was a signal moment in a cultural and political upheaval that had been incubating in the Bay Area for nearly a decade. The Beats and their bohemianism of the late ’50s and early ’60s built a crucible from which a new anti-establishment worldview would emerge.”
Back to G. Allen Johnson for a moment: “Pennebaker, now 91, supervised the restoration of the film, released in 1968, which includes a 5.1 surround sound mix by longtime music producer Eddie Kramer, who worked with many of these artists.” Monterey Pop will be touring the country throughout the summer, and Janus Films lists the cities and the dates. For more on the film and the festival, see the essays gathered here as well as Robert Christgau’s “Anatomy of a Love Festival,” written in July 1967 and first published in Esquire’s January 1968 issue.
Update, 6/15: For Biography, Maria Garcia talks with Pennebaker, to whom she refers by his nickname, Penny. She notes that Jimi Hendrix’s
“riveting rendition of ‘Wild Thing,’ that can only be described as sex with a guitar, ends with him squirting lighter fluid on it and setting it afire. That scene cost Penny his lucrative ABC broadcast deal for Monterey Pop. Musing about it now, he says of Hendrix’s performance: ‘It’s something you’ll never hear by anybody else, anywhere else. You think: “I was there.”’ That sentiment was Penny’s guiding principle in making the documentary. ‘When you go to a concert, you sit in a seat 100 yards away,’ he says, ‘but you really want to be one foot away from the artist and that’s what we tried to do.’”
Update, 6/16: “Pennebaker, who says that he and his team were too busy to take drugs during the festival, still got the hallucinatory effect of the light shows that lit up the background,” writes David D’Arcy. “I found myself taken back, not to hippie San Francisco, but to geometric experiments in film in the 1920s and 1930s by Leger, Man Ray and company, and in the 1950s by William Klein, a contemporary of Pennebaker’s. Not bad, given that the filmmakers were broke when the festival started. At IFC, Pennebaker and cameramen James Desmond and Nick Proferes recalled that they were shooting ads for snow tires on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan before this project.”
Update, 6/23: “Pure Nonfiction host Thom Powers interviewed Pennebaker, along with two of the film’s cameramen Jim Desmond and Nick Proferes, on June 14, 2017 at the IFC Center in front of a live audience,” at the TIFF Review has audio (36’40”).
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