Before Woodstock. Before Altamont. There was Monterey. In 1967, at the height of the Summer of Love, top musical acts from all around the world took to the stage at the Monterey Pop Festival, which featured an array of popular and influential acts. Documentarian D.A. Pennebaker and a team of camera operators were there to document the festival and the footage became Monterey Pop, a highly influential rock ‘n’ roll documentary. Now Monterey Pop has been given a restoration from Janus Films and the legendary documentary will be making a revival run with a brand new 4k transfer.
Fresh off his work with Bob Dylan for his classic documentary Don’t Look Back, Pennebaker was tasked with capturing the events of Monterey Pop. Pennebaker doesn’t inject his film with needless narration or an attempt to contextualize the festival with behind-the-scenes footage. All that’s present in Monterey Pop is the action on stage and the people in the crowd, a fly-on-the-wall approach to the three-day festival in the summer of ’67. Pennebaker condenses the there-day festival into a single 80-minute documentary that gives each major act a moment in the spotlight, as well as highlight just how eclectic the lineup of the festival was.
First up in the film is the Mamas & the Papas, singing their hit “California Dreamin’” as well as their song “Creeque Alley.” Other acts to follow are Canned Heat, Simon & Garfunkel, and Hugh Masekela. Then the psychedelic nature of the late ‘60s in California comes to the stage in the form of Jefferson Airplane, blasting “High Flyin’ Bird” as the colorful images beam upon their set. The stylistic differences between these acts is sometimes kind of jarring, like the transition from the blistering blues numbers of Canned Heat to the soft, acoustic harmonies of Simon & Garfunkel.
Then one of the standout stars of the Monterey Pop Festival takes center stage as Janis Joplin takes to the stage with Big Brother and the Holding Company, the legendary singer belting out “Ball ‘n’ Chain” with her signature raspy voice that melodically screeches unlike any other singer of her era. This is followed with Eric Burdon & the Animals performing the Rolling Stones’ “Paint it Black,” and not one their own massive hits.
The British Invasion portion of Monterey Pop continues when The Who takes the stage. The legendary British band breaks out one of their most memorable hits with thrashed out version of “My Generation,” concluding with the rockers systematically destroying their instruments. Legend has it that The Who and Jimi Hendrix didn’t want to follow each other and flipped a coin to see who would go first. The Who lost and took the stage before Hendrix. Before the film brings us Jimi Hendrix, the incomparable Otis Redding takes to the stage. The soul legend starts out with his upbeat R&B number “Shake” before taking it down a notch for a soulful, seductive version of “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long.”
Then the most iconic image from Monterey Pop is to occur, and Pennebaker must still be counting his blessings that he could capture something so stunning. Jimi Hendrix and his backing band take to the stage and unveil a raucous version of “Wild Thing,” the hit by the Troggs. Hendrix’s guitar sounds more like a Theremin at times than a six-stringed instrument. As the song concludes, Hendrix doesn’t unleash the violent destruction that The Who did with their instruments. Instead, Hendrix performs a ritualistic sacrifice of his guitar before a shocked and bewildered audience. All of which culminates in the memorable image of Hendrix setting his Fender Stratocaster ablaze. Pennebaker cuts to the audience, practically every face visible with the mouth agape. If there’s one reason to watch Monterey Pop, the Stratocaster sacrifice performed by Hendrix would be the one reason.
Monterey Pop doesn’t go out on the highest note, though. The final performance of the film, and quite possibly its longest, is that sitar master Ravi Shankar. It’s possible to respect Shankar and his role in pop culture without being the biggest fan of his music, and its place as the final notes of Monterey Pop just feel out of place. As The Who were already aware, you can’t top Hendrix and the twang of sitar seems like a quaint novelty after Jimi Hendrix has turned stringed instruments completely on their head. If there’s any area of the film where Pennebaker’s instincts didn’t serve him well, it’s concluding the film with Shankar.
D.A. Pennebaker was there to capture a moment in time, a moment of hope and optimism that wouldn’t last much longer. Watching Monterey Pop is odd because so many of the film’s best performers wouldn’t live much longer, and their filmed performances here are the only glimpse that many people have ever had of these legends performing live. Otis Redding would die later that year in a plane crash. Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin would each pass away in 1970. Cass Elliot would die in 1974. Before substance abuse, bad luck, and the disillusionment of the Nixon years took hold, there was a magical weekend in Northern California where the world’s best performers took to the stage and channeled that feeling of love and optimism and blasted it out of their amplifiers. Thankfully there was a master documentarian in the crowd to document that blissful feeling that couldn’t be sustained. We can all try to capture a little sliver at the feeling when watching Monterey Pop.