Monterey Pop (1968), dir. D.A. Pennebaker

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Premiering in a new 4K restoration by Janus Films and Criterion and presented with a pre-recorded introduction by 91-year-old director D.A. Pennebaker, Pennebaker has been working tirelessly on presenting Monterey Pop in its best possible version. Held in the Monterey County Fairgrounds from June 16-18th 1967 to an audience of 50,000, producer Lou Adler sought a friendly, non-commercial environment where artists played for free and profits went to charity, no artists receiving top billing.

Thinking back to the late 1960s, it’s easy to romanticise: its inhabitants become caricatures, preaching about free love and peace, smoking dope, yelling groovy. 16mm creates a historical distance: it lacks the immediacy of digital, noise allowing a trace to the photochemical process but also displaces the film from the present moment. Rather than focusing upon artists alone, Pennebaker intercuts close-ups of the crowd, presenting a shared social space. Some subjects perform to the camera; others are caught unaware. People might seem eccentric: a man wears a top hat; clothes bathed in colour; a woman wears flowers in her hair; another man wears a pinstripe suit; a mother carries her baby in a homemade pouch; a monkey eats food standing on a man’s shoulder.

But the festival, in its ethos, doesn’t seem so far from Glastonbury or others today: watching the people within the frame, we see people who could be us. Behind the clothing lie people with similar values, aspirations, fears and desires. There might not be cellphones recording every performance live on Snapchat, but it isn’t so different technologically either: Jefferson Airplane use fragments of film in screen projection, prefiguring modern LCD screens and more elaborate set-ups. We pan by tents and stalls selling posters, art prints and zines; people stitch together colourful kites, an entire subculture long forgotten. Audiences embrace music, feeling individual relationships with the artists. Pennebaker portraits couples in love: cuddling, making out, laying next to each other, a generation that have grown up, broken up, aged or died, but aren’t so different from the young couples learning love and learning life at festivals today.

As Kevin D. Greene writes, baby boomers at the festival felt “resentment” against an “era of unparalleled affluence”, in a background of the Cold War, assassination of JFK, Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War. Pennebaker finds narratives, conducting interviews with the crowd: he interviews a police chief, concerned about numbers attending and the Hell’s Angels, in a decade defined by riots and clashes against police. A woman cleans up litter, as Pennebaker focuses upon the immensity of empty seats all around. Their generation had their own battles for individual autonomy, before our modern battles for identity politics. Some attendees might seem surprising: Pennebaker captures young kids, Hells Angels, African Americans and Asian Americans, beyond our preconceived notion of a white, young adult monolith.

In his 1969 essay Anatomy of a Love Festival, Robert Christgau wrote that the “love crowd is America’s affair with bohemia”: attendees weren’t just hippies or “lost kids”, but liberals, college instructors, and “everyone who smokes pot, and in California that happens to be a lot of everyone.” Christgau recalls taking a ride back with an elderly Jehovah’s Witness couple that asked if the concert attendees believed in God; Christgau didn’t have an answer.

Pennebaker focuses on the mundane: eating food, finding shelter from pouring rain, lighting cigarettes; Pennebaker closes the gap between present and past, as though history hasn’t changed. Attendees inevitably held onto their own mementos and memories for the rest of their lives, but Pennebaker captures a photographic memory of shared space, creating, as Matthew Eng writes, “moving scrapbooks”, offering a “multiplicity of perspectives” amounting to a “democratic document” that mirrors the festival itself.

Monterey Pop has one major difference from Pennebaker’s most intimate works, Dont Look Back (1967) and Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1973), never offering the same unprecedented backstage insight that defines him. Monterey Pop lacks a negotiation between artistic persona and human being that captured Bowie looking into the mirror applying make-up, or Dylan interacting with fans and journalists. Pennebaker emerged from television, working with Time-Life and ABC on Primary (1960) and the innovation and portability of 16mm news cameras. Pennebaker worked alongside 6 cinematographers and documentarians, including Richard Leacock and Albert Maysles with 5 cameras and 4 track tape recorders, lacking synchronised sound, leaving them alone, supplied with rolls of film. Pennebaker’s most recent film, Unlocking the Cage (2016), still reveals a strong directorial voice, following an animal rights lawyer whilst making a coherent argument around a fascinating subject, without demarcating an obvious, un-contestable position.

Direct cinema might seem outmoded in an age of immediacy of daily vlogs and Instagram, but recent documentaries like Weiner (2016) follow similar principles, creating a developed portrait of a personality beyond the constantly shifting present. Our iconic images of the 60s seem authorless, a predestined record of time ingrained within national and global memory, but each image has an artist, director or photographer behind it: people like Abraham Zapruder, Eddie Adams and Steve Schapiro. Documentary cinema and photojournalism are processes, based upon what we choose (or are able) to capture. Direct cinema affords an interesting relationship to history: Medium Cool (1969) intersects along both the reality of the chaos outside the DNC and the film’s fictional narrative.

Monterey Pop exists in a place between concerts photographed today, with neither the extended duration of live TV broadcasts nor the condensed coverage of vlogs or newscast montages. Pennebaker allows a structure to emerge, condensing 3 days into an 80-minute piece, allowing intermissions as days close and mornings rise: people wake up in blankets, put on pants; an airplane sets down on tarmac. At points, the film seems amateurish: other cameramen appear in shot, perching their tripod upon the roof. From the opening, there’s a home movie quality: text appears on screen, not in type but handwritten marker pen scrawled across screen amid psychedelic flashes; after the credits, the reel dissolves into burns and scratches. It’s not so far from the casualness of Dylan holding up an endless stream of cuecards to Subterranean Homesick Blues in the opening to Dont Look Back. Concert films have many approaches: Sign o’ the Times (1987) may not be the most radical, but conveys clear choreography of Prince’s theatrical spectacle.

Monterey Pop may not be as narratively involving as most cinema, but it doesn’t need to be. The film feels like a compilation with a curated selection of tracks, letting artists guide the viewer along. Many artists seem familiar: Simon & Garfunkel, The Who, Jimi Hendrix. Some are remembered more vaguely: The Mamas & the Papas, Country Joe & the Fish, Ravi Shankar. But who remembers Canned Heat, Hugh Masekela or Eric Burdon? Instruments and genre might represent the biggest difference from today, before synth, sampling, punk or heavy metal.

The opening shots might seem overly sentimental: Pennebaker traces arriving crowds as Scott McKenzie’s San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair) plays over, but Pennebaker quickly launches into performances. The Mamas & the Papas offer circularity, appearing early and performing again towards the close, dressed in Russian clothing defying comprehension. Others become overblown through the limitations of 16mm, drowned by light: Simon & Garfunkel are scarcely visible, covered in red lighting; Otis Redding is captured from behind, white flashes encompassing his face. Some are welcome surprises: Jefferson Airplane transcend the limitations of Jefferson Starship in The Star Wars Holiday Special (1978) through the enjoyable High Flying Bird; Eric Burdon covers Paint It, Black, though unable to rival the iconic Rolling Stones original. Janis Joplin’s Ball and Chain never leaves the mind, portraying powerful intensity that can never be matched, concealing an internal struggle.

My Generation by The Who and Wild Thing by Jimi Hendrix become easy rivals to Jim Morrison’s on-stage anarchy: at the end of their performance, The Who smash their guitar into shards, never giving up, as security and stagehands walk in to chaos, genuinely confounded. Hendrix grinds into his amplifier, has sex with his guitar and sets it on fire, threatening to leave the entire stage and electrical equipment aflame with it, before throwing the lone remnant of the guitar into the audience. But Ravi Shankar offers some genuine calm: Pennebaker surveys his audience, sitting in prayer or content with the present moment, bored or waiting around, holding on Dhun for the duration of the performance as he plays his transcendent sitar, something never heard before. As Christgau wrote:

It isn’t likely that a third of those present had more than the most rudimentary understanding of what was going on. But Shankar played to his audience.

Monterey had some setbacks. As Rolling Stone reported the following year, a backlash emerged from an “ugly collection of voyeuristic “taxpayers””, arguing the festival “resulted in sale of pornographic literature, trafficking in narcotics, an invasion of “undesirables,” and “open fornication”, that may not have been entirely inaccurate. Its artists represent a generation soon lost: Hendrix, Redding and Joplin passed within only a few years of the festival, gone too soon – something uneasily familiar to Pennebaker with his short Lambert & Co. (1964), film becoming a document of the transient. Monterey and Pennebaker set a high bar for the music festival and concert film that may be difficult to ever top.

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