When D.A. Pennebaker and his crew of "direct cinema" filmmakers (including Richard Leacock and Al Maysles) descended on Monterey, California in June of 1967 to shoot Lou Adler and John Phillips' three-day pop music festival, they surely had no idea that they were basically creating (or, at the very least, redefining) the concert documentary film. Few others of note came before (Bert Stern's Jazz on a Summer's Day and Murray Lerner's Festival! are about the only ones that leap to mind), but many more came after, including Maysles' own Gimme Shelter and, of course, Michael Wadleigh's immortal Woodstock--for this writer's money, the greatest rock movie of all time, and one of the three or four best documentaries, period.
The misfortune of Monterey Pop (both the festival and the film) is that Woodstock (see pervious parenthetical) casts such a long shadow over its predecessor. Wadleigh (and editors Thelma Schoonmaker and Martin Scorsese) were clearly influenced by Pennebaker's film; its combination of event reportage and performance footage is mirrored, as is its structure (including the use of appropriate studio tracks during the opening footage of pre-fest preps). But Woodstock didn't just ape Monterey Pop's structural model--it exploded it, utilizing its expansive, thee-plus hour running time to place viewers right in the middle of that pop culture event, and using its large crew of cameramen (and Schoonmaker and Scorsese's editorial genius) to create some of the most explosive music performance footage ever put to film. In contrast--and the fact of the matter is, most viewers today will view this new Blu-ray edition of Monterey Pop in confluence with Woodstock, particularly following the latter film's 40th anniversary Blu-ray bow last summer--Monterey Pop runs a scant 79 minutes, and most of the few performers even glimpsed barely get in a full song.
So Woodstock it's not. But this isn't to imply that we shouldn't celebrate Monterey Pop for what it is--an excellent, exciting film of an important, watershed moment in popular culture. There are some documentary interludes, in which we meet the people putting the fest together (primarily Phillips, seen enlisting the assistance of his wife and Mamas and the Papas bandmate Michelle to work the phones) and festival goers, but the primary emphasis is on the music (with some festival cutaways during the songs).
And the music is amazing. Canned Heat's blistering performance of "Rollin' and Tumblin'" nearly equals their exhilarating performance at Woodstock two years later, while Jefferson Airplane's powerful rendition of "High Flyin' Bird" and Eric Burdon & The Animals' passionate cover of "Paint It Black" are equally memorable. But Big Brother and the Holding Company's performance, featuring a fierce, forceful Janis Joplin, just about stops the show (check out Mama Cass' reaction from out front).
Likewise, if Otis Reddings' appearance doesn't wind you up, check for a pulse; he brings the (mostly white) house down with his energetic performance of "Shake" and the growling sensuality of "I've Been Loving You Too Long." His set at Monterey suddenly made him a mainstream sensation; the same goes for Jimi Hendrix, whose barn-burning cover of "Wild Thing" is still a stunner. And the Mamas and the Papas' "Got a Feelin'" provides a lovely score for a fine montage of all the beautiful people (this, sadly, was one of their last performances).
Not everyone is on their A-game, though. The Who's set is legendary, but they're just plain off at the top of "My Generation"; Daltry's usual tinkering with the rhythm of the lyric gets out of his control, and it starts out as a bit of a train wreck--and, of course, ends like one, with a brute show of destruction (dig the frantic stage techs running around in a panic). And the brevity of the performances is somewhat problematic--we just plain want more, and some of the acts (most notably Simon & Garfunkel) are joined in progress, not even given a full number. The abbreviated (and excluded) acts are all the more puzzling considering how much of Ravi Shankar's performance is left in; it's good, don't get me wrong, but it just seems odd that they turn over a good fifth of the film's brief running time to it (even if much of it is used as accompaniment to documentary footage).
The direction by Pennebaker (who also helmed Bob Dylan's Don't Look Back and John Lennon: Sweet Toronto) is strong, an interesting melding of traditional concert filmmaking and the fly-on-the-wall, cinéma vérité style that he helped perfect. There may not be a wealth of variety to the photography, but the intimate, handheld style puts us up close to the performers, and the film is better for it. You just wish it went on a bit longer; it seems to end just as it's getting started, and we leave Monterey Pop ultimately wanting more.
Pennebaker and collaborator Chris Hegedus eventually attempted to satiate that hunger with two accompanying featurettes, included by Criterion in this deluxe Complete Monterey Pop Collection: The 1986 Jimi Hendrix performance film Jimi Plays Monterey and the 1989 Otis Redding-centered follow-up Shake!: Otis at Monterey.
The 49-minute Hendrix film gets off to a bit of a rocky start, belying its 1980s origination with a goofy, three-minute intro in which artist Denny Dent paints a portrait of Hendrix on an alley wall. That's followed by some rather turgid narration by John Phillips ("He was the hottest act around. Two years later, he was dead") and archival footage of the Jimi Hendrix Experience performing in England (including his legendary cover of "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band"). But once it gets to the Monterey set, it is electrifying; his smoky, grinding performance of "Foxy Lady" is outstanding, as is his mellow, soulful take on "Like a Rolling Stone." But one of its best numbers is one of Hendrix's more obscure: the blues standard "Rock Me Baby," which he plays, beautifully, as a good old-fashioned juke joint jumper.
Hendrix's rambling, 90-mile-an-hour stage patter is a little bit disorienting (during one intro, pretty much all I could understand was "The Wind Cries Mary," the title of the song), and if the end of the set is a bit anti-climactic, well, that's because we've already seen much of the climax in the main Monterey Pop feature. But they certainly couldn't have left out the iconic image of Hendrix lighting his guitar on fire, then smashing it to pieces; music writers smarter than I have compared the competitive stage-smashing of the Who and the Experience, and (correctly) asserted that the difference is an interesting commentary on their style: with the Who, it's confrontational destruction, while with Hendrix, it's damned near erotic.
Shake! is considerably shorter (only 19 minutes, a five-song set), so it thankfully doesn't screw around with a lot of set-up: one shot of the Monterey coast, then straight to Tom Smothers introducing Redding, who is impeccably accompanied by Stax Records' best house musicians, Booker T. and the MGs and the Mar-Keys. Resplendent in a lime-green suit, Redding and his powerhouse band get off to a rousing start--this is how you kick off a set, with a tremendous, crowd-pumping performance of the title song (seen, in part, in the main feature). Next up is the Redding-penned "Respect," which he introduces by noting (with a grin), "this girl, she just took this song from me... I'm gonna do it anyway"; he sings that and his "Satisfaction" as if he's taking them back. "I've Been Loving You Too Long" is also heard in the main film, but it's worth hearing again (if for nothing else, then for the series of four "one more time" hits he gets from the MGs). My only complaint with the film involves the end; the idea of letting "Try a Little Tenderness" score a montage of young lovers and lovely ladies in the audience is a good one, but they take too long to cut back to Otis, who is, after all, performing his last number. That's a minor infraction, however; Shake! is twenty-or-so minutes of pure gold.
THE DVD:/ THE BLU-RAY DISC:
The Complete Monterey Pop Festival was originally released on standard-definition DVD as a three-disc set, with Monterey Pop on disc one, the bonus features on disc two, and the Hendrix and Redding films on disc three. Criterion's new two-disc Blu-ray version combines the feature and its extensive supplements onto the first disc and puts the two shorter films on the second. The excellent accompanying booklet is reissued, mostly intact--disappointingly, Jann Wenner's essay has been excised, though everyone's favorite contrarian, Armond White, remains.
Presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio and encoded with MPEG-4 AVC, Monterey Pop probably looks about as good as you could imagine it looking (considering the 16mm source materials). Grain is present, a little heavy even, but not obtrusive (too little of it and we'd get suspicious), while the dirt, specks, and lines are mostly absent thanks to Criterion's exhaustive clean-up. The resulting image is vivid--colors pop, and the handheld photography is warm and intimate. There is some footage I'd imagine they just could do much with--the saturated stage lights make Simon and Garfunkel look like red blobs in their wide shots, and the same goes for Hendrix during his performance of "Like a Rolling Stone," while Janis looks pretty badly washed out during her set. The image obviously doesn't have the inky blacks or razor-sharp details of a new release, but it's still astonishingly good, all things considered.
Viewers get three options for the main feature: the original uncompressed stereo soundtrack, the remixed uncompressed stereo soundtrack, and the remixed DTS-HD MA 5.1 soundtrack. I sampled all three but watched the latter for the bulk of the film. The original is fine for purists, and good to have available, but it's awfully thin, comparatively speaking. The remixed stereo is much fuller and punchier, but the DTS track fills the room beautifully; it's rich and dynamic, and the separation is a knock-out. The concert audio immersion is also outstanding; I loved hearing the crowd shouting "Shake!" in the rear speakers.
Jimi Plays Monterey and Shake!: Otis at Monterey offer the original uncompressed stereo and DTS-HD MA 5.1 tracks, but not the remixed uncompressed stereo soundtrack. Again, the audio is top-notch, only faltering during the archival "Sgt. Pepper" Hendrix footage (which is presumably thinner because of less ideal recording circumstances).
Thankfully (though not unexpectedly), Criterion has ported over all of the special features from the 2003 standard-def release of The Complete Monterey Pop Festival. Most are found on the Monterey Pop disc, beginning with an Audio Commentary for the original feature with festival producer Lou Adler and director D.A. Pennebaker. The pair are recorded together (as opposed to some Criterion tracks, which edit multiple recordings into one), and it's a terrific track, with two good-humored legends trading memories and great stories.
Next is the crown jewel of the bonus features: the Outtakes. We get roughly two hours of performances not seen in the film, and there is some great stuff in there: the Association's high-energy rendtion of "Along Came Mary," Simon and Garfunkel's "Sounds of Silence" performance that Paul Simon fought to get into the final cut, and a terrific performance by Quicksilver Messenger Service (a band I'm ashamed to admit was heretofore unknown to me). The Paul Butterfield Blues Band is among my five or so favorite bands of all time, so I'm glad to have one of their Monterey tracks joining their cut Woodstock performance on my Blu-ray shelf. Their cover of "Driftin' Blues" is an outstanding example of their later, horn-heavy sound; there's also a wonderful cutaway at the end of the number to recently-departed guitarist Mike Bloomfield, smiling and applauding enthusiastically. That same afternoon, he debuted his new band, the Electric Flag, and their electrifying song,"Drinkin' Wine," is a highlight of the outtakes. (Frequent Bloomfield collaborator Al Kooper's performance is also very good, if a bit overlong; frankly, he's shown up a bit by the Blues Project, the band that he had recently left, though they also don't win any points for succinctness.)
We get three fine songs by the Byrds (including one introduced by David Crosby talking Kennedy assassination conspiracy), and a terrific, fast-paced rendition of "Somebody to Love" by Jefferson Airplane. Big Brother & The Holding Company's "Combination of the Two," heard over the opening credits, is also included, and Buffalo Springfield performs their signature tune, "For What It's Worth." The Who and Mamas and the Papas sets are filled out, with three more (outstanding) Who tracks and six more by the Phillipses and company (plus some very funny stage patter from Cass regarding her crush on John Lennon); before the festival finale of "Dancing in the Streets," Mama Cass introduces Scott McKenzie, who performs his smash "San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair." Some of the tracks were wisely excluded (Country Joe and the Fish are decidedly mediocre, and Laura Nyro doesn't make much of an impression), and while Tiny Tim's green room performances were part of the experience, good Lord is he an acquired taste. The outtakes can be viewed via a "play all" option, day by day, or via an artists index.
A full platter of Interviews are up next. First is an in-depth, 2001 video interview with Adler and Pennebaker (29:22); they disucss their backgrounds, the origins of the festival, the film's roots as a TV special for ABC, and so on (illustrated with vintage photos). It's an interesting conversation, though some of the commentary material repeats. The rest of the interviews are audio only; first up is John Phillips, with a lengthy discussion (16:03) of how the festival came together, his thoughts on the acts, etc. We also hear from "Mama" Cass Elliot; her interview (12:19) is a little thin aurally (there are occasional audibility issues), but is still fascinating--particularly her thoughts on the Mamas and the Papas' performance at the festival (which she characterizes as "terrible" and "dreadful"). David Crosby (9:27) discusses the strange professional point he was at that June, and recalls his initial reaction to Hendrix, among other topics. Finally, we have press agent Derek Taylor (29:24), who also served that purpose for the Beatles. Again, the audio quality is less than stellar, but his detailed recollection of how the festival came together is invaluable.
Under the banner of "Promotional Material", we have the film's groovy original Theatrical Trailer (2:43), which begins with a modified version of the opening credit sequence before giving us quick tastes of most of the performances. Also included are five Radio Spots (3:42 total), each spotlighting a different big-name act heard in the picture; I love vintage radio ads, so these were a real treat. In the "Festival Ephemera" section, we have a selection of wonderful Elaine Mayes Photographs, which can be viewed in viewer-navigated, day-by-day galleries or in a "Photo-Essay" (12:14), accompanied by an articulate 2002 commentary by Mayses (and her bio, via on-screen text).Viewers can also navigate their way through the original Festival Program. A brief text history of the Monterey International Pop Festival Foundation (or MPIFF) is also included.
Jimi Plays Monterey comes with an intelligent, articulate Audio Commentary by music critic and historian Charles Shaar Murray. It's a first-rate commentary, well worth a listen. He also offers up some additional insights, filed as Additional Audio Excerpts (44:07), which are quite intriguing (particularly his comments on Robert Christgau's original Hendrix criticisms). Next up is a brief but solid 1987 Interview (4:35) with Pete Townshend in which he discusses Monterey and, specifically, his interactions with Hendrix there. The oddly over-narrated Trailer (3:34) for both of the shorter films closes out the Hendrix-related extras.
Music historian Peter Guralnick recorded not one, but two fine Audio Commentaries for Shake!: Otis at Monterey, presumably due to the film's brief running time; one is a song-specific (hell, at times, it's beat-specific) breakdown of the set, the other a broader examination of Redding's career. Finishing out the package is a fascinating 2002 Interview (18:45) with Redding's manager, Phil Walden.
Monterey Pop is occasionally uneven, and leaves you wanting more, but it's an essential documentary nonetheless, beautifully capturing one of the watershed moments of the "Summer of Love," and of 60s rock in general. Criterion's Blu-ray offers a wonderful overdose of bonus materials and outstanding audio and video; my quick, unscientific comparison of the Blu-ray to the 2003 standard-def discs showed negligible improvements to video quality, but a much richer, fuller audio presentation, so audiophiles should buy accordingly.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their two cats in New York and holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.