Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Monterey Pop at 41 - from the Criterion Collection

The pitch: acid rock and high times during the Summer of Love.

The original rock-concert film and still one of the best, Monterey Pop covers highlights of the legendary 1967 California music festival, featuring some of the era's greatest musicians performing at their prime. This is a single-disc edition of the Monterey Pop three-disc boxed set that Criterion unleashed in 2002 to sterling reviews. But this new release is no double-dip, stripped-down title. Far from it. The DVD includes the complete theatrical feature and a wealth of fascinating supplements. It's highly recommended as a less-expensive alternative to the boxed set, which contains extensive outtakes that director D.A. Pennebaker couldn't use.

Though it seems much farther away in time, 41 years ago on a soft day in June some 200,000 people arrived in Monterey, California, to experience the first and only Monterey International Pop Festival. Organized as a charity event, the festival brought together an eclectic mix of the hottest rock 'n' roll and R&B talent, of whom only a small portion would make the final cut of this film.

Festival producers Lou Adler (a music legend who worked with everyone from Sam Cooke to Led Zeppelin) and John Phillips (leader of the Mamas and Papas) were prescient enough to realize that the historical significance of this event demanded a recorded document. They hired documentary filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker (fresh off his success with the Dylan chronicle Don't Look Back), and secured production money from ABC Television. Yes, Monterrey Pop almost became a made-for-TV movie (more on that in a moment).

Pennebaker and his crew got busy, filming the crowd's arrival, the setup, all the smoky chit-chat, and the backstage banter among musicians. More importantly, they captured the most electrifying live performances recorded up to that time on film. The concert plays as a veritable who's-who of 1967 musical talent. Three performances by the Mamas and Papas made the final cut (more than any other group), probably because Phillips was a producer. But by the end of the year the Mamas and Papas were history, imploding on adultery and hard feelings among the members. Though the harmonies were superb, their slick, pop confabulations are hardly the best part of this wildly intoxicating film.

mong the enduring concert highlights: catch The Who's Pete Townsend smashing his guitar beyond recognition, and Jimi Hendrix setting fire to his with a can of lighter fluid. Hear Janis Joplin stun the crowd with her anguished, soul-shuddering vocal on "Ball and Chain," which blows away "Mama" Cass Elliott (who's parked herself in the audience at this point). Smile at the shimmering, relaxed joy of Simon and Garfunkel, who're feelin' groovy. Sway to Otis Redding's soulful vocals as he laments a lover who's worn out her welcome. And trip out to the mind-bending acid rock of "High Flyin' Bird" and "Section 43," which together will put to rest any doubt anyone could ever have about drug use and drug references in rock 'n' roll. And before we close out the show, the faithful stoke their pipes once more and luxuriate in 18 hypnotic minutes of pure transcendence as Ravi Shankar proves forevermore that he is the absolute master of the sitar, that magical, exotic stringed instrument from India. His serpentine playing leaves the audience in a squirming state of ecstasy.

While the live performances are the main draw, Pennebaker's hand-held cameras also capture the hippie culture in full flower as gentle people wander the park blowing soap bubbles (though they're mostly inhaling — on pipes and rolled paper.)

Set List:

• "San Francisco (Be Sure To Wear Flowers in Your Hair)" (Scott McKenzie)
• "Creque Alley" (Mamas and Papas)
• "California Dreamin'" (Mamas and Papas)
• "Rollin and Tumblin" (Canned Heat)
• "59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin' Groovy)" (Simon and Garfunkel)
• "Bajabula Bonke (Healing Song)" (Hugh Masekela)
• "High Flyin' Bird" and "Today" (Jefferson Airplane)
• "Ball and Chain" (Janis Joplin with Big Brother and the Holding Company)
• "Paint it Black" (The Animals)
• "My Generation" (The Who)
• "Section 43" (Country Joe and the Fish)
• "Shake" and "I've Been Loving You Too Long" (Otis Redding)
• "Wild Thing" (Jimi Hendrix)
• "Got a Feelin'" (Mamas and Papas)
• "Raga Bhimpalasi" (Ravi Shankar)

Check out the quality of this DVD

Toss that old VHS tape; the Criterion DVD of Monterrey Pop is the one to buy, whether it's this single disc, or the three-disc boxed set released in 2002 with outtakes and extensive additional footage of Jimi Hendrix and Otis Redding. Completists will need—and probably already own—the pricey boxed set. Those who have that earlier Criterion release should not buy this edition, as it appears identical to Disc One in the boxed set (keep reading anyway). Those who have been sitting on the fence now have an option, since this single disc offers the original cut of the film and a solid set of extras for less than half the price of the boxed set. The audio is reference quality, absolutely exquisite; video is a mere notch below excellence. Only some occasional pixilation keeps the disc from flying into that rarefied strata of perfection.

I have seen and enjoyed Monterey Pop many times, but until reviewing this disc I realized not only had I never truly experienced the flow of images, I'd never really heard the music, either. My God, what a sound! Tricked out in a choice of Dolby 2.0 stereo, Dolby 5.1, DTS, or the original mono, the restored soundtrack on this disc is a sonic miracle. When Jimi Hendrix launches into "Wild Thing" by the Trogs, viewers might be amused by the blatant sexual come-on of the song (sock it to me, indeed). Previous releases of this film only hinted at what the guitarist was really up to, because the original soundtrack (at least on videotape) was muddy and nearly incoherent. With this Criterion release, I discovered that Hendrix had a sly sense of humor: during the bridge of this simple, three-chord song about an urgent need to get laid, he casually plays a bar of "Strangers in the Night"—Sinatra fans take note—then slips right back into the "Wild Thing" riff. Now, that's inspired.

Pennebaker in the 2002 interview included on this disc says he wanted to legitimize rock 'n' roll as an art form. Joining him for the interview is producer Lou Adler, who recalls that the picture was originally to be broadcast on ABC television, where he claims it probably would have aired once and vanished. So Adler and his team made a strategic decision after the festival: They showed ABC executives some rough-cut footage of Hendrix wailing on his Fender guitar, humping a stack of Marshall amplifiers and setting fire to his axe while worshipping the ungodly feedback screeching from the instrument at the climax of his set. The horrified ABC executives said, "No, thanks; not on this network." According to Adler, they gave him the film outright with the admonishment, "Pay us back if you can." And so, as it turned out, Jimi Hendrix was indirectly responsible for making Monterey Pop a legend. Had it not been for the guitarist's flamboyant performance, Pennebaker's film might have been an ABC Sunday Night Movie of the Week, with one broadcast on an evening when the target audience would almost certainly have been doing something other than watching television.

Pennebaker deploys the cinéma vérité style, or what he calls “fly-on-the-wall” filmmaking, according to his website. He uses handheld cameras and available light, neither directing nor interviewing his subjects. The result is a candid, naturalistic document that minimizes the inevitable influence of a documentary crew on its subject.

He also supervised Criterion's high-definition transfer for this DVD. The new 5.1 mix by brilliant recording engineer Eddie Kramer is presented in Dolby Digital and DTS, and represents a mammoth improvement over earlier consumer releases of this seminal film.

Disc supplements are abundant and interesting. The lengthy interview with Adler and Pennebaker provides the most contextual and historical information. A digital scrapbook of photographs and a facsimile of the original festival program are quite beautiful and informative. I especially enjoyed the audio commentary by photographer Elaine Mays that accompanies a slideshow of images she captured during the festival. Mays recalls the heady experience of being at an event that helped shape her generation, while supplying generous information about her techniques, equipment, and her choice of film stocks and lenses. This is nothing less than a short course in concert photography and photojournalism. A discussion of Kramer's audio remixing techniques for this release illustrates the incredible amount of work that the Criterion people invest in their product.

Monterey Pop appeals on several levels—as a documentary and concert film, but also as a political statement. The film captures tremendous talents when they were still young and some of them may have even been innocent.
Pennebaker's superb documentary also provides an eerie, saddening glimpse of many famous musicians who would be dead within a decade. Knowing this while watching the film, I was vaguely reminded of the closing shot in American Graffiti, that indelible image in the clouds as the future is revealed while we revel in the sweetness of the present:

• Six months after Monterey, Otis Redding was killed in a plane crash in Wisconsin. He was 26.

• Rolling Stones founder and multi-instrumentalist Brian Jones, seen strolling among the Monterey crowd, would drown two years later in his swimming pool at age 27 after being kicked out of the Stones for drug-addled incompetence.

• "Mama" Cass Elliott of the Mamas and Papas suffered a fatal heart attack in 1974 while touring in London. She was 32.

• Canned Heat guitarist Al Wilson was 27 when he committed suicide in 1970 (lead singer Bob "The Bear" Hite was 38 when he died of a heart attack in 1981).

• A barbiturate overdose claimed Jimi Hendrix at 27. He died in London in September 1970.

• A month later Janis Joplin was dead at 27. Her body was found in Hollywood's Landmark Motor Hotel. An overdose of heroin combined with alcohol poisoning was the cause.

• Keith Moon, mercurial drummer for The Who, overdosed in 1978 on prescription drugs intended to wean him off alcohol. He was 32.

Years later, during the interview on this disc, Pennebaker, now 81, would say his objective was to record "people in motion" in all their kinetic glory. Their music, fame, and fortune could not make it last. Sorrow and tragedy would come to many of these musicians and, no doubt, to many of the people who came to witness them at Monterey.

Tolerance isn't the same as endurance, of course, and in the end some children of the sixties unraveled, either from their own excesses or from a mass-culture resistance to whatever threat they were perceived to represent. And truth be told, some musicians made fortunes and lived to tell the tale (Pete Townsend does very well these days). Some people got stuck in time and moved to places like Guatemala (I've been there and I've seen them, tooting their wooden whistles and flutes and talking to themselves in an acid-casualty haze, mindlessly indulging in a paradise forever elusive in the country they abandoned). Others simply moved on in the figurative sense, like generations before them and since. They got married, got mortgaged, had kids, got divorced. They toiled and struggled and paid their bills as best they could and tried to figure themselves out. They registered to vote. Or didn't. Some lived happily ever after. Or not. Life is like that.

But in this 79-minute film, D.A. Pennebaker documented a three-day music festival that gave voice, meaning, and direction to a generation that just wanted to live peacefully, enjoy sex, smoke a little grass, and crank up the music for as long as possible. And at this fleeting, fantastical moment in the lives of many, that was enough.

Curiously, I cannot recall a single mention of Vietnam in this film. Perhaps that's because reaction to the word and the war it represented would change a year later. So would the Love Generation, though not necessarily for the better.

While not as technically audacious as Woodstock, with its multi-channel sound, split-screen effects, and pinpoint editing (some of it assembled by a young Martin Scorsese), Monterrey Pop remains a hugely influential documentary. Experiencing this picture is like cracking into a time capsule filled with a riot of color and mesmerizing music, with the scent of patchouli and the pungent smell of pot wafting up from the box.


Criterion delivers a magnificent DVD of a film restored from less than optimal source materials—especially the soundtrack. Truly, the Criterion alchemists weave straw into sonic gold. Essential viewing.

Copyright © 2008 by Cinematic Cteve // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

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