Monterey Pop

Monterey Pop

Monterey Pop is the D.A. Pennebaker concert documentary of the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, featuring many of the biggest name musical performers of the 1960s.

From what I understand, the style of the film was unusual and innovative for its time. It’s minimalist in that there is no narration, no text providing information, and only the minimal background and context that the cameras happened to pick up scanning the crowd, getting sound bites from people arriving for the concert, etc. The opening titles provide a list of the performers who appear in the film; otherwise you won’t know who’s playing unless you recognize them. (I knew about 60% by sight, inferred another 20%-30% from remembering who was on the opening list, and am still uncertain of 10%-20%. It would be easy enough to figure out all of them though, just by going back to the opening list, since it gave the names in the order they appear. It’s just not a big enough deal to me to bother.)

What’s maybe even more striking for a concert film is that they show basically nothing of what happens on stage other than (some of) the songs themselves. There are no introductions; the performers don’t greet the crowd, banter with the crowd, thank the crowd, talk about the songs before or after, etc. You don’t get that sense of interaction between the performers and the audience (except insofar as there are reaction shots of the crowd during some of the performances, and you see how into it they are, so you do get the sense that the performances themselves are emotionally resonating with people, and there’s a connection at least to that extent).

The camerawork is mostly not clear, straightforward, showing the whole stage, showing things in easy to understand perspective. It tends instead to be more artsy, with lots of super close-ups, weird angles, and “bad” shots like the backs of people’s heads not edited out. Plus for the performances after sundown, it looks like they didn’t illuminate the stage all that much, so there’s a kind of dark look to some of the film, where you can’t fully see what’s going on.

I thought the film did a reasonably good job capturing the overall feel of the event. It’s a nice snapshot of certain elements of the ’60s. There’s a “Summer of Love,” “flower power,” feel-good air about the proceedings. You even spot a few children in the crowd, and they don’t seem out of place (as they certainly would have been, say, when I first went to stadium rock concerts in the late 1970s). It’s not a caricature though, like you might get in a current retrospective about the ’60s.

Even the sex and drugs seem somehow more innocent and optimistic. When a young woman making her way to the concert smiles and says “Haven’t you ever been to a love-in?” it doesn’t put one in mind of a raunchy orgy.

And the performers themselves seem to mostly be exuding that same positive, fun spirit.

It’s an interesting assortment. From the Mamas and the Papas to Otis Redding to The Who to Hugh Masekela to Ravi Shankar and on and on. (I’m curious who didn’t make the cut to be in the movie, since they only show maybe a dozen acts, and I have the sense that more people performed at this multi-day event.) Not that none of these acts overlap with each other at all, but that’s a pretty wide variety of musical types. Mostly what they have in common is that they were all popular in the ’60s (and that the crowd is open to all of them and appreciates all of them), but it’s more analogous to watching highlights of the Olympics than watching highlights of the Super Bowl.

It’s pretty short for a feature film, so almost everyone gets only one song, and sometimes not even a whole song.

Not surprisingly, some connected with me more than others. It was kind of nice seeing the Mamas and the Papas, and Simon and Garfunkel, among others. My mind wandered a bit more with some of the ones where I didn’t recognize the song (and occasionally didn’t recognize the performers). I had mixed feelings about the artsy camerawork and all the close-ups. I’d say it detracted from things slightly more often than it enhanced them; too often if made me more conscious of the filmmaking than of the content itself.

I thought it picked up in intensity around the midway point of the movie. One of the acts from that part of the film is The Who, who give a spirited performance, but maybe a little “by the book.” They fall back on a standard from several years earlier—“My Generation”—and smash their instruments at the end, which was their wont. It’s kind of like they’re trying to give a harder edge to the proceedings, offering up something a bit incongruous with the “peace and love” of most of the other acts. Which is fine, but I think I would have been more impressed by that change in style if it had felt like honest, spontaneous emotion, rather than just their usual pre-planned shtick. (Keith Moon is engaging, however. Has anyone ever gotten more pure joy out of playing rock and roll?)

Jimi Hendrix gives a standout, powerful performance. The exaggerated and unsubtle sensuality of it (basically humping his guitar, humping the air, etc.) is probably about as far as one could go without drawing an X rating for the film. At the same time, I was struck by his playfulness on stage. It’s not just a raw, threatening black man, macho, in your face, kind of sexuality; there’s a spirit of fun and light-heartedness to his tone of voice and the way he gestures to the crowd.

It’s maybe the second most effective performance shown. What keeps me from labeling it as the highlight of the movie is that there’s still a self-consciousness to it, a sense that he’s in control and it’s all a show. It’s very skilled, very powerful showmanship, but not quite real enough to blow me away.

Ravi Shankar is handled peculiarly. They choose to close the movie with him (perhaps because the concert closed with him, and they show the acts in chronological order—I’m not sure). His instrumental goes on and on and on, I’m guessing for a dozen minutes or more, way longer than the time allotted to any other performer in the movie. And for the first half or so of it, he’s never shown. Instead it’s all shots of the audience and such, to the point where I was wondering if there was some weird contractual thing that he couldn’t be shown in the movie. Then when they finally do show him (and the Indian musicians with him), it’s all in that super close-up style. It’s not until the song is over that they finally pull back and show the stage and you get a better perspective of what they looked like up there.

It’s not bad, but I don’t think I would have done it that way. They got a little too cute with that, plus I’m not sure why he warranted so much more time than the others. (Not that I quarrel with how much time they gave him. I’d probably rather the movie be expanded and some of the other acts given more time, than that the Shankar segment be reduced in length.)

But the hands down highlight of the movie for me is Janis Joplin’s performance of “Ball and Chain.”

Wow. Bring on the clichés. “Worth the price of admission,” “Brings down the house,” etc. I’m reminded even of sports clichés. People talk about whether you win or lose, you always want to know you “left everything on the field” when the game’s over. That’s Joplin walking off the stage after that song.

The raw intensity, the wailing emotionalism of the performance, is mesmerizing. She’s so willing to lay it all out there, to lose herself in the experience, it’s like you’re watching some combination of a shattering orgasm and a person shrieking in response to the news that a loved one has died. It has more of a genuine feel to it than even the best of the very good, very intense, performances of Hendrix and some of the others.

I have this live performance on a Janis Joplin CD, and the track runs over eight minutes. So my one complaint is they chop it down in the movie (which again stands in contrast to the very long Ravi Shankar song). But otherwise, I think the filmmaking enhances this performance. I talked about how in general I experienced the unconventional camerawork and such as neutral to mildly negative, but it’s almost like it takes a performance like this to really warrant that treatment.

For most of the other songs, I’d probably have preferred mostly normal shots of the stage where you can see everyone and see what’s going on, with maybe occasional close-ups for variety. But for “Ball and Chain” somehow the way it was filmed, the close-ups of the emotion in her face, fit the power of the performance.

Twice there are close-ups for several seconds of her feet on stage. Normally I’d roll my eyes at something like that as too artsy, but it works here. It put me in mind of Muhammad Ali’s physician Ferdie Pacheco commenting that when Ali really wants to set down on his punches and maximize their power, you can see his feet curling slightly and his toes gripping the canvas. You get that same sense from those shots of Joplin, that she’s digging down to her very toes, clenching every muscle up through her legs, to belt out that song with everything she’s got.

The emotion isn’t just in her face, but throughout her body, throughout her being.

There’s a wonderful reaction shot of Mama Cass in the audience (it’s interesting how some of the performers can be seen in the audience while other acts are on stage) with her mouth agape, watching Joplin “leave everything on the field.” Just right.

This is the performance you want for the time capsule, to show what rock and roll, what the blues, can be.

Wow.

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