#561) Monterey Pop (1968)

#561) Monterey Pop (1968)

OR “Cannery Rock and Row”

Directed by D.A. Pennebaker

Class of 2018

The Plot: The Summer of Love got off to a good start with the Monterey International Pop Music Festival on June 16th-18th, 1967. One of the first music festivals to prominently highlight rock bands, Monterey Pop featured such established stars as the Mamas and the Papas, Jefferson Airplane, and Simon & Garfunkel, along with such up-and-coming groups as The Who, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, and Big Brother and the Holding Company. Luckily, documentarian D.A. Pennebaker and his usual murderers’ row of cameramen were on-hand to record the proceedings.

Why It Matters: The NFR calls it a “seminal music-festival film” that “established the template for multi-camera documentary productions”, praising the “superb camerawork” of Pennebaker and his crew.

But Does It Really?: As much as I enjoyed this movie (as I have most of the “concert features” on this list), I questioned the standing of “Monterey Pop” on the NFR, considering how much overlap it has with “Woodstock“. My research has made a compelling argument for perseveration of the Monterey Pop Festival, and its significance in the history of rock. Plus, I’m a sucker for anything by D.A. Pennebaker (and so help me I will get “Original Cast Album: Company” on this list). I’ll give “Monterey Pop” a pass, but I still think it treads too much of the same water as “Woodstock”.

Wow, That’s Dated: While the focus of “Monterey Pop” is primarily on the performers, you do get several snapshots of the burgeoning youth culture of the late ’60s. Though it is fascinating to note how many hipsters I know that dress exactly like these boomers. Some things never go out of style.

Seriously, Oscars?: No nomination for “Monterey Pop”. Despite being one of the most influential documentarians in film history, D.A. Pennebaker received only one nomination in his career for 1993’s “The War Room”. The Academy finally gave Pennebaker an Honorary Oscar in 2012.

Other notes 

  • The Monterey Pop Festival was organized with the intention to legitimize rock music with something similar to Monterey’s annual jazz festival. The entire festival was paid for by The Foundation, a non-profit that gave grants to young musicians. All acts were compensated for travel and accommodations, and performed for free (except Ravi Shankar, who must have had a great manager).
  • The film opens with a montage of various hippie-types coming to the festival, set to Scott McKenzie’s “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)“. Turns out that song was written specifically to promote the festival, and to ease an anxious Monterey about the potentially unruly turnout.
  • It’s nice to hear the Mamas and the Papas live, especially “California Dreamin'”, whose recorded version has been needle-dropped in way too many movies.
  • Hugh Masekela’s performance reminds me that while there are some people of color in the line-up, there are virtually none in the audience (I counted three). But hey, that’s Monterey’s demographics for you.
  • No offense to any of these performers, but I’m watching the likes of Jefferson Airplane and The Who and thinking, “I just saw them in ‘Woodstock’. Why am I watching this?” But then again, I’ve spent the last four years obsessing over a list of movies chosen by different people over the course of 32 years, so maybe I should just relax or go outside or something.
  • The most conspicuous absence in “Monterey Pop” is The Grateful Dead, who performed the last night of the festival. The band felt that the film was too commercial (this is back when the footage was going to be used for a TV special) and refused to be filmed.
  • Big Brother and the Holding Company also initially refused to participate in this movie, and boy am I glad they had a change of heart. Janis Joplin is a force to be reckoned with singing “Ball and Chain”. This is aided by a reaction shot of Cass Elliott in the audience, her jaw practically on the floor in awe and respect for Joplin.
  • This was one of the first American outings for The Who, and their performance of “My Generation” ends with Pete Townshend smashing his guitar and knocking over speakers. Look closely for event stagehands rushing the stage to save the rest of their equipment.
  • Otis Redding was just making a name for himself when he played Monterey, his first major concert for a White audience. Sadly, Redding’s newfound fame was short-lived; he died six months later in a plane crash.
  • And now we come to the scene that I think clinched the NFR preservation: after his electrifying performance of “Wild Thing”, Jimi Hendrix sets his guitar on fire, smashes it, and throws the remnants into the audience. I did not realize how sexual the whole thing was; Hendrix practically dry-humps his guitar during the act. I’m also curious what happened to that guitar. There’s a souvenir for a lucky fan.
  • The movie’s finale is Ravi Shankar’s 18 minute performance of “Dhun”, which for me is the highlight of the movie, and a truly riveting performance by Shankar and his group. The only thing that would have made it better is if Shankar lit his sitar on fire and smashed it.

Legacy 

  • The Monterey Festival was a massive hit, with an estimated attendance of 60,000 people a day (the actual performance area sat 7,000). Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Otis Redding, and the Who all become overnight stars thanks to the festival.
  • Initially filmed for a one-hour special, D.A. Pennebaker’s footage was rejected by ABC (one executive saw the Hendrix footage and yelled “Not on my network!”), and was ultimately distributed theatrically by Pennebaker himself. The film helped solidify the event’s legacy as a formative moment in rock history.
  • When Joel Rosenman was approached about financing a recording studio in Woodstock, New York, he had just seen “Monterey Pop” the day before, which inspired him to counter-propose a rock festival in the Woodstock area. And the rest is history that completely overshadowed this movie.
  • Any plans to make the Monterey Pop Festival an annual event were immediately shot down by the city. There was, however, a 50th anniversary festival in 2017 at the Monterey Fairgrounds. Eric Burdon & the Animals returned, and among the headliners was Norah Jones, daughter of Ravi Shankar.
  • Not to dwell on how many of these performers died tragically young, but I want to reiterate that Cass Elliot died of heart failure in her sleep, and not from choking on a ham sandwich. A partially eaten sandwich was found in Elliot’s room when she died, and initial speculation in the press has unfortunately stuck around long after the official autopsy.
  • Not surprisingly, D.A. Pennebaker had hours of outtakes from “Monterey Pop”, much of which has appeared as bonus material. Pennebaker also used the footage to make two films in 1986: “Jimi Plays Monterey” and “Shake! Otis at Monterey”.

Listen to This: Among the “Monterey Pop” artists on the National Recording Registry are Simon and Garfunkel (“Sounds of Silence“), Janis Joplin/Big Brother and the Holding Company (“Cheap Thrills“), The Who (“My Generation“), Otis Redding (“I’ve Been Loving You Too Long“), Booker T and the MG’s (“Born Under a Bad Sign“, “Soul Man“, “Green Onions“), and The Jimi Hendrix Experience (“Are You Experienced“). Still waiting on Jefferson Airplane and the Mamas and the Papas to make the cut.

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