The way some rock fans talk about the sanctity of live music, you’d think it was a guaranteed path to transcendence. But of course most concerts fall far short of the sublime, and the thrill of breathing in the same air as your idols or witnessing them flaunt their virtuosity in real time is so often compromised by bad acoustics, frustrating sight lines, and the off-key screeches of the person standing next to you. What people tend to cherish in the best concert docs are the pristine audio and up-close views of the action, delivered through an all-seeing, all-hearing perspective that no one at the event could have enjoyed. But these movies can offer something even more precious: a deeply personal sense of how the filmmaker experienced and hoped to remember a show—in other words, a sense of how one kind of artist chose to look upon another kind of artist. What separates a great concert doc from the countless hours of live footage now on YouTube is the dance between camera and subject—the beat-by-beat push-and-pull between proximity and distance that has always set the screen apart from the stage.
this dance that makes Otis Redding’s performance of “I’ve Been Loving You Too
Long” in D. A. Pennebaker’s Monterey Pop not
just the emotional high point of the film but one of the most overpowering moments
in the concert-doc canon. If you were to watch the movie cold, with no
knowledge of its legendary set list, you wouldn’t see its galvanic impact
coming. In the number right before it, Otis bursts onto the stage with a down-to-business
rendition of Sam Cooke’s “Shake,” an up-tempo anthem driven by stomping, swaying,
and hollering. Otis’s name, rendered in the psychedelic style of
the festival’s branding, pulsates on the scrim behind him, but Pennebaker holds
on a medium angle that frames the frenzy at a calm remove, the edge of the
stage visible and the star’s four-piece rhythm section, Booker T. and the
M.G.’s, working up a sweat alongside him. At the end of “Shake,” the spectacle
is tempered by even more distance, as Pennebaker cuts to a far-off wide shot and
Otis catches his breath before making a spoken appeal to the “love crowd,” an
audience far whiter than his established southern fan base. It’s as if the filmmaker were coming up for air just long enough to brace himself
for the storm on the horizon.
By the opening strains of “I’ve Been Loving You”—two notes suspended nakedly in air—Pennebaker is pressed up to the side of Otis’s face, now tinted red and purple by the spotlights. This is the kind of private view only a camera could provide: not just exclusive “access” but a tangible, nearly skin-tight closeness. The song, an R&B hit written by Otis and fellow soul legend Jerry Butler, is an old-fashioned plea for someone who has fallen out of love with the singer to somehow keep on loving him. With its slow-burning verses that crescendo to a volcanic refrain, it’s a self-knowing showstopper, and early in the performance Otis winkingly turns to the horn section, interrupting the sorrow for a bit of euphoric call-and-response that highlights how much the song is designed as a sonic and emotional ambush: “Can you do that one more time? Just one more time!” The way his sandpaper voice caresses and then attacks the lyrics—agonizingly, fetishistically—you want to give him whatever it is he’s begging for.
Pennebaker had simply pointed and shot, if his footage had turned out to be
cinematically unremarkable, he still would have been doing us the favor of
recording the most impassioned performance of one of soul music’s towering ballads, a
composition that reveals a tender, more richly melodic side of an artist better
known for his abrasive grit. But as Pennebaker captured it, the
performance is a swirl of darkness and light, presence and its shadow. Half a
minute into the song, we’ve slipped into dream, an abstractness that pioneers
of Direct Cinema like Pennebaker, with their devotion to unvarnished verisimilitude,
are not known for pursuing. As if to counter the intimacy of his approach
during the first few seconds of the song (and the granular tactility of Otis’s own sound),
Pennebaker starts showing us the singer from behind, the solidity of his frame
replaced by an ethereal silhouette. All of a sudden, Otis’s own breath and the
particles drifting around him are more visible than he is. Reaching for the
high notes (“you were tired!” “I love you!”), he repeatedly yanks
his body out of the shot, flooding the screen with ecstatic white light. The moans and wails
ring in our ears, but their source has been blotted out.
When Otis materializes again, we see his eyes are closed, and it’s as if Pennebaker had allowed us, for just a few moments, to join the singer in that place beyond sight, overwhelming our vision just as Otis’s body was consumed by song. The spiritual metaphor is in keeping with how the performance has been mythologized over the years: Bob Weir, of the Grateful Dead, famously remarked, “I was pretty sure I’d seen God onstage.” But for fans then and now, Pennebaker’s game of now-you-see-him, now-you-don’t is also tinged with heartbreak; half a year after his breakthrough set at the Monterey Pop Festival, the twenty-six-year-old star died in a plane crash.
Concert docs are not generally thought of as cinematic, and some of them are about as stagey as filmed theater. This is a genre predicated on a certain degree of claustrophobia: the camera’s gaze is typically fettered to the performers’ bodies, finding relief only when it decides to wander along the length of the stage, turn on a usually undifferentiated mass of spectators, or cut to some related action from another time and space. Out of these constraints, it can be difficult to sustain the kind of dramatic momentum that justifies screen time. Otis singing “I’ve Been Loving You” in Monterey Pop is an exception, partly because the scene reveals how much the filmmaker understood his medium’s capacity to withhold as much as it gives, occlude as much as it shows, elegize as much as it immortalizes. In an age dominated by hyper-produced stadium tours (and the proliferation of shaky, iPhone-shot records of them), it seems even more remarkable that a concert doc would invite us to consider something as elemental as light falling on a body, refracting through a camera lens. Watching Otis engulfed in that light, we have to squint our eyes, his vividly alive presence becoming more and more of a ghostly trace. That voice we’re hearing—as viscerally, palpably there as any sound in American music—comes from a place and a time and an inner life we can never see clearly.