Monday, June 12, 2017

D.A. Pennebaker’s Monterey Pop

ABC just didn’t get it. When they saw the footage of Jimi Hendrix torching his guitar at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, they reverted their rights back to D.A. Pennebaker, taking a pass on what would become one of the most iconic concert films in documentary history. Remember that when anyone on the network lectures you about anything. Instead, the film released in theaters in late 1968, the watershed year for the counter-culture. On the fiftieth anniversary of the festival, music and film connoisseurs can revisit and re-evaluate Pennebaker’s Monterey Pop (trailer here) when Criterion’s new 4K restoration opens this Wednesday in New York at the IFC Center.

Much to the trepidation of local authorities, 8,500 eager young-ish folks crammed into the venue, over twenty percent more than were expected, but no harm was done—unless you happened to be a guitar. Many critics were struck by the way Pennebaker soaks up the scene and slyly incorporated ironic bites of audience chatter. However, hipper viewers will notice its aesthetic similarity to Bert Stern’s Jazz on a Summer’s Day, documenting the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival nine years earlier.

At the time, seeing all these acts together in one sitting was a treat. Remember, there was no youtube or itunes back in the day. However, some of the performances have comparatively depreciated with the passage of time and the proliferation of online media, whereas others have gained potency. Frankly, The Mamas & The Papas and The Who feel like they are just doing workaday sets, even if Pete Townsend smashed his guitar at the end of “My Generation.”

Eric Burdon & the Animals do a credible version of the Stones’ “Paint it Black,” but it seems odd to give a cover such prominent placement—of course, their greatest hit was also a cover, so maybe it makes sense in a weird way. Otis Redding certainly came to play and so did Canned Heat doing a very modern sounding take of Hambone Willie’s “Rollin’ and Tumblin’ [Blues],” but they would later generate much more buzz for their appearance in the 1970 Woodstock doc (with “Going Up the Country”). Technically, Hendrix’s “Wild Thing” is yet another cover, but it is undeniably history in the making when he immolates his guitar. Even though it is 1967, you can still see the WTF looks in the front rows (of course, you know all those folks will now boast to anyone who will listen: “I was at Monterey when Jimi set his guitar on fire—and it was awesome).

Ironically, the clear, hands-down, head-and-shoulders-above stand-outs in Pennebaker’s film would now be considered “world music” rather than “pop.” Hugh Masekela has a foot still very much in jazz when performing a stark, stirring rendition of Afropop-flavored “Bajabula Bonke (The Healing Song),” the B-side to hit smash hit single, “Grazing in the Grass.” Appropriately, Monterey Pop ends with an infectiously transcendent performance by Ravi Shankar, with Alla Rakha on tabla. Pennebaker further builds the inherent tension of “Dhun (Dadra and Fast Teental)” by focusing on the increasing ecstatic audience rather than the Indian musicians, until they reach the climaxing crescendo.  Yes, that was one that should still sell downloads.

There is still a good deal of groovy music in Monterey Pop, interspersed with some sardonic observational humor. There were some sad prints out there, but the restoration looks terrific. Frankly, it is more inconsistent than people probably remember, but it remains a cultural milestone. Recommended for fans of 1960s rock and world music, Monterey Pop opens this Wednesday (6/14) at the IFC Center.