Most documentary films strive to place events into historical and cultural perspective.
Released at the end of 1968, director D.A. Pennebaker’s snapshot of the June 1967 Monterey Pop Festival — broadly considered the zenith of the Summer of Love — became a visual thesis statement for activists who believed large-scale music festivals were key in spreading the anti-war counter-culture movement, not just in the United States but internationally.
The film was used as pitch material by organizers of 1969’s Woodstock Music & Art Fair; French New Wave giant Jean-Luc Goddard was so taken with it that he ended up staging a rooftop concert shoot with Jefferson Airplane that the NYC cops shut down for noise.
“Monterey Pop” also had an enormous impact on what is considered a high point in American pop music. Pennebaker and his crew captured, with what now would be considered an almost verite sensibility, powerful performances by some of the era’s great acts.
(In a new forward for the 4K restoration, Pennebaker says his team’s technical breakthrough was discovering how to synch performance footage shot from various angles.)
The film gave the first broad national exposure to Otis Redding and Jimi Hendrix, who famously lit his guitar on fire during a cover of The Trogg’s “Wild Thing.” (Hendrix actually played the thing as it lay on the stage.)
The breakout star of the film was a relatively fresh-faced Janis Joplin, who tears through “Ball and Chain” with Big Brother and the Holding Company as the festival audience, most notably Cass Elliot, stares on in awe.
The other acts are all good in their own way; your millage will vary, based on musical taste. Canned Heat’s cover of “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” really can’t be beat; Hugh Masekela’s trumpet on “Bajabula Bonke (The Healing Song)” deserves to be on the same ticket as Hendrix’s guitar; Country Joe and the Fish provide a nice window for a bathroom break.
It merits note that on some levels, “Monterey Pop” works more like a love letter than a documentary. With no note of irony, it opens with a flower child describing her rapt anticipation:
“Have you ever been to a love in? … I think it is going to be like Easter and Christmas and New Year’s and your birthday all together, you know?”
Pennebaker spends only a few minutes at the start of the film glossing over preparations for the festival, taking the chance to cast a little shade on a cop who is worried that the Black Panthers and Hells Angels might cause trouble (more on that at the end of this article).
In the restoration’s forward, Pennebaker attributes the overall spirit of the Monterrey festival and film to the organizers’ ability to get all the acts to perform for the same limited pay scale. “They had thrown the concept of money away, and that made the festival very human,” he says. “That created the sense of all the musicians being equal.”
“Monterey Pop” is showing at Speed Cinema Friday, July 7, at 7 p.m., and Saturday, July 8, at 3 p.m. Tickets are $9.
With music festival season upon us, we wanted to get some recommendations from folks in the Louisville music community for other concert and music industry films. We asked Lisa Foster of Guestroom Records and Brett Ralph of Surface Noise Records for their picks, which look at life on the road from various perspectives.
“I Am Trying to Break Your Heart: A Film About Wilco” (2002, directed by Sam Jones) is a David vs. Goliath industry tale between Wilco and Warner Brothers in the rejection and eventual release of the album “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.”
Externally the band struggles to choose between art and commerce; internally Wilco struggles to find middle ground between primary collaborators Jeff Tweedy and Jay Bennett. Some criticized Jones at the time for his lack of overarching narrative, but his aesthetic choice to shoot the film in black and white is compelling in its own way — offering a stark visual landscape to underscore the film’s ultimately false binaries.
Wilco’s music is simultaneously art and product; Tweedy and Bennett were both doomed and brilliant in the album’s collaboration. It’s a film most compelling when most banal, chronicling the everyday frustrations and intense rewards of making and selling music.
“Shut Up and Sing” (2006, directed by Barbara Koppel) is a testament to how political climate and market pressure shaped one of the most commercially popular bands of all time. Koppel follows the Dixie Chicks on the American leg of their 2003 Top of the World tour after which Natalie Maines has infamously entered the political realm by saying she is “ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas.”
Its an enticing blend of how gender and rhetoric matters in the musical marketplace, as well as a time capsule of tumultuous post 9/11 America — with tour footage replete of bomb-sniffing dogs, death threats and back-room conversations on booking the country music staples through Canada instead of the Deep South.
I recommend “Festival Express” (2003, directed by Bob Smeatonnaand Frank Cvitanovich), which chronicles Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead, The Band, Ian and Sylvia’s Great Speckled Bird, and many more on an ill-fated Canadian cross-country train tour circa 1970.
I also recommend “The Passing Show: The Life and Music of Ronnie Lane” (2006, directed by Rubert Williams), a documentary about Ronnie Lane’s gypsy minstrel show touring the English countryside after he’d left behind the Faces. It offers maybe the best chance for strangers to understand the sense of fun and generosity of spirit for which seemingly everyone who knew him revered the man.
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Lastly, we at Insider Louisville would be remiss if we did not include a recommendation for the Maysles Brothers’ “Gimmie Shelter” (1970), an unflinching look at The Rolling Stones’ 1969 tour, which ended in violence at the Altamont Free Concert.
The directors had no clue that tragedy was coming, of course, but the film is shot and edited as a dirge for the short-lived Summer of Love counter-culture and stands as a bookend for the breathless enthusiasm of “Monterey Pop.”
Movie Nerd Trivia: Albert Maysles was on Pennebaker’s crew at Monterey.
The sluggish, sloppy life of even a great band on the road is on full display, with some decent musical numbers thrown in. A highlight: Jerry Garcia and The Grateful Dead refusing to go on after the Hells Angels (remember those guys?) had already beaten fans and punched out Jefferson Airplane.