Pop: Ancient and Modern

Janis Joplin, Otis Redding, Jimi Hendrix. Every generation venerates its own saints and mythologizes its own martyrs. Half a century after it arrived in theaters, the documentary Monterey Pop endures the way all of our creation myths do. Filmed in June 1967, at the outset of the Summer of Love, it remains the definitive portrait of the burgeoning counterculture, a paean to a developing consciousness whose avatars, many now departed, became the new, dandified Olympians of the modern age. Bert Stern and Aram Avakian’s Jazz on a Summer’s Day (1959) and Murray Lerner’s Festival (1967), portraits of the Newport Jazz and Folk Festivals, respectively, share this film’s sense of purpose and place, a self-awareness about being witness to a watershed cultural moment, but from the first instant of Monterey Pop—wailing feedback from James Gurley’s guitar—a new, post-Newport sensibility announces itself. In the wake of Warhol, Lichtenstein, and Hockney, pop was no longer a confection of AM radio but an entire worldview, a way of being, one that encapsulated everything from fashion to philosophy, from Mary Quant to Marshall McLuhan to the Mamas and the Papas. By the summer of 1967, rock, soul, blues, psychedelia, and world music were borrowing freely from one another, pushing the envelope of popular music ever further. The Monterey International Pop Festival was a gathering of the music and musicians at the vanguard of this movement, artists who defied genre and classification. The festival, and the film that forever immortalized it, mark a defining moment when pop music became a new universal language, one large enough to encompass rock, soul, and everything between and beyond.

Myth, writes Roberto Calasso, is the “realm of risk . . . the enchantment we generate in ourselves . . . a spell the soul casts on itself.” In the postinternet age, pop has supplanted mythology, dominating virtually every aspect of our lives, from the stories we tell ourselves to the power we ascribe to its stars. Monterey Pop, the first of a new kind of concert film, one whose descendants include everything from Penelope Spheeris’s The Decline of Western Civilization (1981) to Michel Gondry’s Dave Chappelle’s Block Party (2005), has survived long enough to become a part of modern mythopoeia. What makes it a truly unique and lasting work is the way in which it knowingly breaches the barrier between performer and audience, between mythmakers and myth, capturing for all time a generation coming into recognition of itself. Its power is first and foremost in the music it so brilliantly captures, but also in the way it reminds us of an eternal ritual, one that didn’t begin or end in the sixties, whereby each successive generation becomes the inheritors of the past, their purchase on the present ineluctably tied to the shaping of the future.

For those coming of age after World War II, the secular religion of pop music reintroduced color, theatricality, and a new ideal of sanctity into a world that had lost its spiritual moorings in the wake of the atom bomb. Satiating a primal, youthful desire for identification and solidarity, pop functioned, and continues to function, like an electronic rhizome, with the radio as its chief propagator, inventing and reinventing itself through a loose, irreverent attitude toward tradition. Combining country and rhythm and blues, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Chuck Berry helped give birth to rock and roll in the fifties, identifying a new teenage demographic that the music industry was quick to capitalize on. By the end of that decade, Presley had joined the army, and Lewis and Berry were involved in career-derailing scandals. Ever inventive, the industry recalibrated and began creating, à la Hollywood, pop stars in Elvis’s image. With their teen-idol looks and blending of balladry with soft rock, Paul Anka, Ricky Nelson, Fabian, and Bobby Vee dominated the charts in the early sixties. The Beatles, raw talents more in tune with the wild, inchoate spirit of Elvis and Little Richard, disrupted all of this when they came to the U.S. in 1964. Theirs was a harder, more beat-driven sound, as distinct from the rock and roll from which it originated as it was from the lighter pop sounds that it was rapidly relegating to the sidelines.

Out of this, a new kind of pop star emerged, one far less beholden to the mechanizations of the record industry. The aggressive pansexuality and raucous protopunk attitude of the Rolling Stones, the Kinks, and the Animals also stood in stark contrast to the seemingly limitless number of sellable, ready-made pop idols the music industry had favored in the earlier part of the decade. Authenticity and innovation became, if not wholly bankable qualities in themselves, prized attributes of the modern pop artist. With that came a widening of the mainstream almost unimaginable a few years prior. In the wake of Motown, Bob Dylan, and the Beatles, pop music had succeeded in becoming a fusion of all musical styles that had preceded it. For a brief, shining moment, experimentation was not only in but celebrated, so much so that by the middle of the sixties, the two-minute pop single began losing its primacy in the marketplace to the long-playing record. The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds (1966) and the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967), the latter released only a few weeks before the Monterey Pop Festival took place, offered something greater than a collection of recent hits and potential singles. These were fully realized artistic statements that broke from the strictures of pop radio and made the album, a novel concept at the time, the all-important transmitter of where the culture was heading.

Away from any market-driven considerations, it was rock’s curious mix of reverence for and misunderstanding of the musical forms it was appropriating that made it so wholly revolutionary. In the suburbs of Chicago and the villages of England, guitar players such as Mike Bloomfield and Eric Clapton received as literal truth the dramatizations of Robert Johnson, Skip James, and Muddy Waters, creating a mutated form of the blues and carrying that music’s destiny far beyond its origins in the Mississippi delta. When it found its way back into black hands via Jimi Hendrix, rock was an almost unrecognizable amalgam of forms, but from that confusion a cosmos had been created.

At the time of the Monterey Pop Festival, the film’s director, D. A. Pennebaker, was forty-one, several years removed from the Love Generation, though a veteran of two Bob Dylan tours. His position as one of the central chroniclers of the counterculture grew out of a deep empathy for its values. As a child, Pennebaker had been shuttled between his mother in and around New York and his father in Chicago, seeking refuge in the jazz scenes that were exploding in both cities. Encouraged by his friendship with the pianist Joe Bushkin, Pennebaker’s early ambition was to become a musician himself, despite his father’s prohibiting him from using the word jazz in his house. Settling back in New York in the late forties, he frequented the clubs on Fifty-Second Street, befriending Atlantic Records cofounder Ahmet Ertegun and ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax. The three met regularly at Pennebaker’s East Seventeenth Street apartment to listen to his vast 78 rpm record collection. “What I heard in Louis Armstrong and Fats Waller,” Pennebaker recalls, “was their ability to try things that hadn’t been accepted, even at the risk of not being immediately popular. I recognized these same qualities in Joplin and Hendrix, who I admired and championed, despite the protestations of people like Lomax.”

Pennebaker’s crew on Monterey Pop included his Drew Associates collaborators Albert Maysles and Richard Leacock, along with (among others) the novice camera operators James Desmond and Nick Proferes, whose gift for filming music is supremely evident throughout, most notably in the final moments, when their dual cameras capture, with intense concentration, the melodic interplay between Ravi Shankar and tabla player Alla Rakha. Direct Cinema, a movement Pennebaker had helped to pioneer earlier in the decade, proposed a visual language perfectly suited to reflecting the accelerated, mass-mediated landscape of the latter part of the twentieth century. By taking documentary filmmaking places it had never gone before—factually, cinematically, and poetically—Pennebaker and his crew created an immediate parity between their work and the radicality of the music at Monterey. Positioned on and around the stage, the filmmakers focus on hands and faces, the exchange between musicians, the exaltation of the audience. The film is not content to merely observe phenomena, and its most daring and powerful moments are those that transgress the strictures of Direct Cinema, as when Pennebaker’s camera finds a poetic counterpoint in the crescendo of Otis Redding’s “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long.” Framed against the stage lights, the singer’s movements create a powerful stroboscopic effect, one that manages to achieve an oneiric sense of oneness with the music. It plays as a visceral, deeply affecting eulogy for Redding, who would be killed in a plane crash before the film’s release.

Monterey Pop’s nonhierarchical, genre-defying presentation of rhythm and blues, rock, and classical Indian, was endemic to the festival itself. Of the groups who played Monterey, many were unknown to Pennebaker and his crew; their cameras simply stayed with the most sonically and visually dynamic. The only mandate Pennebaker set himself came later, in the editing, when he organized the performance footage around where the pop music scene was at that time (Simon and Garfunkel, Hugh Masekela) and where it seemed to be going (Hendrix, Shankar). Scott McKenzie’s “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair),” written by festival co-organizer John Phillips, plays over shots of the gathering crowd and serves for Pennebaker as a kind of nonnarrative prologue, its lyrics reflecting the mood of that weekend (“There’s a whole generation / With a new explanation . . .”), and allowing the viewer a moment to reflect on the social phenomenon that had prompted thousands of young people to converge, often in defiance of their middle-class upbringings, and forge a new, alternative community that rejected materialist values.

In 1967, the counterculture was seen by many as a passing fad. By hiring Pennebaker, John Phillips and Lou Adler, the organizers of the Monterey Pop Festival, sought to give their gathering a lasting importance, to carry its impact beyond the borders of San Francisco to a wider audience for whom the music and its message would serve as a generational manifesto. Released in late 1968 into theaters, where it often played with Leacock’s antiauthoritarian short film Chiefs, Monterey Pop connected with members of a global counterculture whose postreligious spiritual development hinged on the mythopoeia surrounding the Who, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, and Shankar. Tragically, by the end of the decade, drugs, the war in Vietnam, and the hardening of political rivalries had ravaged some of the best and most sensitive minds of that generation. Like Achilles, Janis Joplin, Brian Jones, and Hendrix found glory at the high price of an early death. Outside of the counterculture, one of the film’s earliest champions was the author and essayist Renata Adler, who, as a film critic for the New York Times, praised Monterey Pop for the “way it captures the pop musical willingness to hurl yourself into things” without the “joy- and action-stopping self-consciousness of an earlier generation.” It’s “a willingness,” writes Adler, “that can somehow coexist with the idea of cool.”

Fifty years on, what Monterey Pop offers contemporary audiences is a powerful reminder of a largely absent world, a glimpse into an era that begat one of the last collective gasps of romantic utopianism of our time. Myths, as Calasso reminds us in The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, tell of things that never were but always are. Monterey Pop captures icons who certainly were, but who also exist for us, like their predecessors from antiquity, in the ethereal eternity of our collective mythology. Pennebaker’s film has never looked or sounded as dynamic and shockingly modern as it does in this fiftieth-anniversary restoration. Elvis’s first controversial appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show and Hendrix’s hypersexualized guitar pyrotechnics at Monterey took place in the span of one decade, an acceleration within popular music the likes of which we have not seen since and, perhaps, never will again. At moments, Hendrix, Redding, and Joplin seem to be performing from a place beyond their own ability, their talent and questing spirit buoyed by the era. For as long as we revisit Monterey Pop, these figures, like constellations, remain brilliantly alive for us beyond their own small purchase of time.

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