Criterion // 1968 // 147 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron // September 24th, 2009
Let it Rock!
If there's one thing that continues to endure from the '60s, it's the music. The politics have become passé (though still somewhat relevant in a world rife with unnecessary conflict and distrust), the fashions and phenomenons forgotten outside of nostalgia and needless reinvention. But looking over a list of the band and artists who made an impact as part of the Peace Generation -- Bob Dylan, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, etc. -- it's hard to deny the enduring legacy. Many of these influential icons set the standard by which the music business, and popular culture in general, function to this very day...and yet, outside their albums and singles, there is so little physical evidence of their greatness.
Decades before MTV, VH1, or other variations on the same visual theme, performance remains part of the past. Luckily, a few artifacts endure, including Monterey Pop, D. A. Pennebaker's document of the famed 1967 California concert and "love-in." Featuring career making turns by Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and Otis Redding, it stands as the precursor to other great films like Woodstock, Wattstax, and The Last Waltz. Now available in a fabulous "complete" edition from Criterion Blu-ray, this incredible time capsule proves that, even with its shaky counterculture confines, the Summer of Love sure could rock!
There are multiple variations of the Monterey Pop "experience." The original film was a 79 minute souvenir of the three day event, a proposed TV special that, due to the "controversial" nature of some of the acts, went straight to cinemas. Pennebaker had nearly two hours of additional footage available to him, but rights and clearance issues kept him from featuring more bands. When DVD arrived, much of this material was made available as supplements. In addition, Pennebaker cut together two complementary presentations -- Jimi Plays Monterey (offering Hendrix's entire set) and Shake! Otis at Monterey (highlighting the rising soul singer). On this latest Blu-ray release, Criterion has compiled everything available, including the original film, the solo stuff, and the occasionally inspired outtakes. Together with commentaries, interviews, and scholarly dissertations, we get an in-depth look at the overall festival and how amazingly influential and important it was. If you need to know every song and significant moment offered, you can check out retired Judge Steve Evans review of Monterey Pop and retired Judge Ryan Keefer's take on Jimi Plays Monterey and Shake! Otis at Monterey currently available onsite. There are also numerous websites that will fill out the three day roster quite nicely for those willing to invest the time in a Google search or two.
In a post-millennial decade defined by lip syncing, auto-tune, and the inevitable audience shrug over the merits of both, it's fascinating to watch musicians actually "make" music, to sweat solos, redefine vocals, and play their pasted together ragtag instruments. From guitars that look like ancient relics to keyboards covered in the scuffs of a hundred poorly paying gigs, Monterey Pop's eavesdropping cameras take an up close and very personal look at the performers and all they encompass during that fateful June weekend in 1967. Avoiding the head-on showcase to get inside the "head" of each entertainer on the marquee, this amazing documentary paints portraits, not staged celebrations. As far back as his earliest work, Pennebaker believed in the POV cinema vérité style of shooting, a way of working that would influence the genre and even those outside it (famed French New Wave madman Jean-Luc Goddard was so enamored of this film and its approach that he hired the Jefferson Airplane and collaborated with Pennebaker on the never finished One A. M.). It served him well with Monterey Pop.
In essence, he believed in capturing life as it happened, to let the images and the random ambient noises and overheard conversations tell the story. No interviews. No set-ups. No stopping the organic narrative to paint the situation in the celluloid hues he thought necessary. All throughout Monterey Pop, Pennebaker and his crew use their newly engineered portable 16mm machines to careen in between ticket holders, to sneak backstage and watch artists prepare. Sure, the vast majority of the movie is bands and singers doing what they do best, but it's the smaller incidental moments that leave a greater impact: Mama Cass in awe of Janis Joplin's barn-burning take on "Ball and Chain"; Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones casually mingling amongst the crowds; Hendrix cooling to the brilliant Indian groove of Ravi Shankar; Mickey Dolenz of the Monkess transfixed by the same performance. As a collection of such casual gemstones, Monterey Pop is precious all by itself.
The supplements supply the same delights: David Crosby ranting about "multiple gunmen" being responsible for JFK's assassination; Cass mocking her weight and her John Lennon-less lovelife before heading into a heartbreaking rendition of The Beatles "I Call Your Name"; Peter Tork pimping the recently formed Buffalo Springfield; The Association offering up a mannered and quite bizarre "robotic technology" introduction of the band before breaking into "Along Comes Mary." In some cases, it's clear why the performances were edited out. The Byrds seem angry at each other (and it turns out, they were), the Who were a bit nervous, this being their first major North American gig, and The Grateful Dead might as well have been ghosts. They had to play between Townsend and the Brit boys and up and coming guitar god Hendrix. In fact, Laura Nyro was so distraught over what she thought was a poor reception that the late singer/songwriter constantly sited Monterey Pop as a low point in her career (the footage argues otherwise).
And yet none of that really matters here. Pennebaker uses the aura, the atmosphere, the individual attributes that each artist brings to the mix to make his epic musical statement, and the results stand on their own outside of any perceived performance flaws. This is especially true of the individual sets for Hendrix and Redding. The former actually received a rather frosty initial reception from the free love hippy crowd. His loud guitar feedback and amplifier histrionics turned off some who were looking to keep the sunny good vibrations happening. But through a killer collection of classics including "Hey Joe," "Foxy Lady," and the always anthemic "Purple Haze," he made his stand. Redding gets less time to make an impact, and yet he transcends his onstage trepidation to deliver knock out takes on "Respect," "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction," and the brilliant "Try a Little Tenderness." Along with the other material offered as part of the extras, we get the big picture regarding Monterey Pop's import. It's no wonder that producer Lou Adler and Mamas and the Papa's founder John Phillips "folly" ended up the Gold Standard for all festivals to come.
And speaking of Gold Standards, Criterion outdoes itself once again with a near definitive Blu-ray presentation that takes a gritty, off the cuff 1.33:1 full screen image, transfer it over from its sketchy 16mm roots, and turn it into a pristine, almost perfect 2009 treat. The Blu-ray looks brilliant almost 95% of the time, the 1080p AVC-encode doing its best with such specious sequences as the all-red lighting on Simon and Garfunkel or the occasional pyschedelic show freakouts present. Is there grain? Yes. Are there times when the camerawork ruins a decent moment? Sure. But in the end, considering the source and the technology of the time, this movie looks amazing. On the sound side of things, Criterion has upped the ante, delivering a rematered DTS-HD Master Audio mix that's a clear cut above other aural presentations of this material. While the original uncompressed stereo and remixed uncompressed stereo are available, stick with the new version. You've NEVER heard Monterey Pop sound like this before.
As for added content, Criterion also outdoes itself. The main disc has the two hours of added material (in DTS-HD Master Audio), as well as an intriguing interview from 2002 when Pennebaker and Adler basically get together and talk to each other. They are also featured as part of a compelling commentary track. There is also an odd short called "The Hunt Club" featuring Tiny Tim in full "Tiptoe through the Tulips" mode. Truly weird. There are also audio only Q&As with John Phillips, Cass Elliot, David Crosby, and Derek Taylor, TV spots, trailers, photos with commentary, information on the remastering, and a massive 64 page booklet. As for the second disc, there are commentaries on each short film, an interview with Redding's manager at the time, Phil Walden, and a snippet from a sitdown with Pete Townsend regarding the entire Hendrix/Who Monterey debacle (neither artist wanted to go on after the other -- organizer John Phillips had to settle things with a coin toss). Again, all films have been tweaked, and the sound arrives in both uncompressed and the glorious DTS-HD Master Audio option. Together, it truly is a "complete" package.
Rock and roll really became the soundtrack to our lives in the 1960s. Before then, it was a combination of pariah and product, the devil's work wrapped up in a mixture of teen idol tendencies and radio racism. Since then, it's been a rollercoaster cavalcade of art and artifice, the good, bad, and ugly of sonic situations. Watching something like The Complete Monterey Pop makes it all the clearer. In an era which saw popular music reinventing itself almost every week, the acts which gathered together to celebrate peace, love, and the lifestyle of California illustrated that constant striving to attain a kind of perfection -- a perfection of sound, a perfection of playing, a perfection in tying the era to the entertainment available...and visa versa. Monterey Pop made a statement in support of the endearing quality of music. That we still celebrate it forty years on speaks volumes -- as does this amazing Blu-ray presentation.
Not Guilty! Great music. Great film(s). Great technological treatment.
Review content copyright © 2009 Bill Gibron; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* PCM 2.0 Stereo (English, Original)
* PCM 2.0 Stereo (English, Remixed)
Running Time: 147 Minutes
Release Year: 1968
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Bonus Performances
* Photo Essay
* Written Essay
* Radio Spots
* IMDb: Monterey Pop
* IMDb: Jimi Plays Monterey
* IMDb: Shake! Otis at Monterey
* Official DA Pennebaker Site