Of the holy triad of Aquarian Age rock-concert docs, D.A. Pennebaker’s Monterey Pop (1968), screening at the IFC Center in a new 4K restoration, has the distinction of being the earliest. It is also the fleetest: Michael Wadleigh’s three-hour Woodstock, from 1970, clocks in at more than twice the running time. More crucially, Monterey Pop is the most pacific. Gimme Shelter, the Maysles brothers’ notorious snuff rockumentary, also from ’70, features two Rolling Stones — Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts — in front of the filmmakers’ editing table, watching themselves and their bandmates at California’s Altamont Speedway during that disastrous December 1969 night when Meredith Hunter was fatally stabbed by a Hells Angel as the Stones sang “Under My Thumb.” Those blood-soaked concert grounds were just to the north of where, more than two years earlier, Pennebaker and his crew (which included Albert Maysles) captured the ebullience of the Monterey International Pop Music Festival, three days of tremendous good vibes and towering performances that took place in mid-June of 1967.
The concert in Monterey, a coastal town two hours south of San Francisco, kicked off the Summer of Love, an SF-centric phenomenon preceded by January’s “Human Be-In” in Golden Gate Park. Like most enduring celebrations of the counterculture, the music festival benefited, however paradoxically, from shrewd marketing. To promote the Monterey show, John Philips of the Mamas and the Papas, one of the event’s organizers, wrote “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)”; the dippy anthem, recorded by his pal Scott McKenzie, was released in May and quickly landed in the top ten.
The studio version of the song plays during Monterey Pop’s opening minutes, accompanying pre-concert footage of teens and young adults resplendent in garb ranging from Carnaby Street chic to haute hippie, many following the imperative of McKenzie’s hit single. The twelve acts — of the more than thirty that performed at the festival — included in Pennebaker’s roughly eighty-minute film likewise display a wide variety of fashion: from the floor-grazing his-and-hers caftans of the Mamas and the Papas to the ascetic turtlenecks of Simon and Garfunkel to the snug teal suit of Otis Redding.
Nothing, though, was as singular as the sounds coming from the stage. Phillips and his associates (including superproducer Lou Adler) conceived of the event, among the first rock festivals in the country, as a way to give the many different idioms of pop music the same artistic legitimacy as jazz, which Monterey first began celebrating 1958 (the Monterey Jazz Festival hosts its sixtieth edition this September). And the estival jubilee hatched by Papa John and company really did honor the “International” in its official name. In Monterey Pop, we experience the transcendent power of Afro-jazz giant Hugh Masekela and his ensemble as they perform the swooping, horn-heavy “Bajabula Bonke (Healing Song)”; the last fifteen minutes of Pennebaker’s film famously consist of sitarist Ravi Shankar, then in high demand by George Harrison and other pop princes, and his tabla and tambura players bringing the crowd to ecstasy with the raga “Dhun (Dadra and Fast Teental).”
Just as exultant is the homegrown talent. The members of Jefferson Airplane, the San Francisco–based progenitors of psychedelic rock, are seen bathed in red light during portions of “High Flying Bird,” a bluesy number made more urgent by Grace Slick’s soaring contralto playing off Marty Balin’s limpid tenor. (The otherworldly crimson hue that envelops the group and other performers in the film is the result of Chip Monck’s stage lighting.) During the ballad “Today,” another duet — one of the few instances in Monterey Pop in which an act is allotted more than one song — the camera is trained close on Slick’s face, here engaged in a bit of unintended ventriloquism: The voice coming out of her mouth isn’t hers but Balin’s, a glitch in the syncing. (Pennebaker had five portable sync cameras, rare equipment at the time, built so he could shoot the concert.) But the sound-and-vision mismatch, fixed soon enough, nicely enhances the dreamy abstraction of the segment, particularly as the camera goes almost behind Slick’s head, zooming in so tight that strands from her brunet mane nearly fill the entire frame.
The effect is one of estranging intimacy, bringing us impossibly near to these sublime beings onstage and yet somehow ensuring that they remain forever mysterious, magical, and untouchable. That’s especially the case with the two performers who perhaps had the biggest breakthroughs at Monterey: Janis Joplin, here (with Big Brother and the Holding Company) making one of her first major public appearances; and Otis Redding, the Stax sovereign of soul already with six albums to his name who was almost certainly playing to the largest group of white Americans who had ever assembled to hear him sing. (“This is the love crowd, right? We all love each other, don’t we?” he amiably says to the concertgoers in between songs.)
Joplin’s raw, hungry cover of the Big Mama Thornton blues barn-burner “Ball and Chain” enraptures Mama Cass Elliot, beaming from a fold-up chair in the audience. After Redding performs “Shake” with so much energy that he becomes a human third rail, he delivers “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” with such gutting hurt and need that he seems to overwhelm the cameras: White light and lens flares fill the screen, Redding’s figure nearly unintelligible. But his voice, like those of so many others in Monterey Pop, remains unmistakable, inimitable — empyreal.
Directed by D.A. Pennebaker
Opens June 14, IFC Center