D.A. Pennebaker’s Monterey Pop remains the definitive live document of the hippie era, a vivid portrait of a cultural movement still in its ascendancy. The 1967 Monterey International Pop Music Festival’s lineup was filled with artists who are now firmly established in the rock canon but at the time were still hungry for recognition. As Pennebaker films the event, the musicians seem every bit as blown away by their cultural moment as the audience, frequently sitting with the crowd to gape at their peers. It’s not hard to see why: Stand-out acts not only proved themselves before a large audience, but started to reshape the structure and possibilities of popular music.
Monterey Pop is a ruthlessly efficient abridgment of a three-day musical extravaganza. Featuring only the best and most relevant performances from the festival, the film also arranges them out of order so as to better serve a narrative about how the event changed rock n’ roll. The Mamas & the Papas, for example, were the festival’s closing headliners but are the first out of the gate here, playing their summery psych-folk classic “California Dreamin.’” Their gentle vibe defines the film’s first section, which captures the final vestiges of folk and blues as the bedrock of counterculture music, with groups like Canned Heat and Simon & Garfunkel playing rootsy pop that clashes with the rock that usurped its position as the music that mattered.
Sometimes the transitions between styles is jarring, as when Simon & Garfunkel’s gentle, acoustic “The 59th Street Bridge Song” smashes into the high-energy jazz of Hugh Masekela, who erupts into the frame supported by an artillery-like barrage of percussion. But that’s by design. By the time Jefferson Airplane show up, Simon & Garfunkel’s ethereal, gloomy folk has been effectively rendered archaic by the cascades of psychedelia. The greatest stretch comes near the end, when Pennebaker documents multiple sea-change moments in pop history: the Who, then barely known in the States, shocks the crowd by demolishing their equipment; Otis Redding lays down scorching soul and thrilling rave-ups; and Jimi Hendrix literally torches a guitar he’d already lit up well enough with his playing. Each scene marks a new approach to pop music, of artists working within established genres but shattering boundaries in ways that still manage to shock and awe.
Amid these seismic snapshots of music’s evolution, Pennebaker captures a number of grace notes of performers and even crowd members at work and at play. The filmmaker shoots and interviews a woman who selflessly takes it upon herself to clean the festival’s seats in the early morning before the next round of musicians take the stage. Elsewhere, after taping an incendiary vocal performance from Janis Joplin, Pennebaker follows the musician as she heads off stage to gales of applause and captures, almost miraculously, as she skips briefly in a state of pure giddiness at the adulation she’s received.
Pennebaker’s gift for subtle observation even feeds into Monterey Pop’s bravura closing sequence, devoted to the Sunday-morning performance of Indian sitar master Ravi Shankar. Though Shankar played before that night’s gallery of classic performances by the Who, Redding, and Hendrix, he fits perfectly at the end here. As Shankar’s music bends, speeds, and drones outside of Western concepts of musical phrasing, we see the crowd completely enamored, including Hendrix, whose open-mouthed disbelief at what he’s hearing is all the more striking given that the film just showed him singlehandedly rewriting the rules of the electric guitar for the next 50 years.
As the audience hoots and screams for every hairpin turn and galloping tempo change that Shankar and his trio produce, culminating in a burst of applause that drowns out every single reception any other act received up to this point in the film, we’re left with the impression that as other musicians at the festival sought new sounds to upend familiar forms, there existed the possibility that the sound they were chasing had long ago been discovered and codified in other cultures. That realization seems to reverberate through the crowd in real time, and the disbelief and ecstasy it inspires marks arguably the greatest conclusion to any concert film ever made.
The image on Criterion's previous Blu-ray of Monterey Pop was respectable in its clarity, but there's no denying that this 4K restoration of D.A. Pennebaker's 16mm film marks a significant leap in quality. The loud colors of the era's hippie fashions are far more pronounced now, with purples and reds in particular shining with new intensity. The original stereo tracks were cleaned up by legendary sound engineer Eddie Kramer for the last release, and they still sound rich and full. Of note, however, is an update of the 5.1 surround-sound remix that Kramer provided for the 2009 release, this time boasting even deeper bass and subtler channel distribution. John Entwistle's bassline in "My Generation" can now shake a room, while the delicate space that hangs in the air around Otis Redding's "I've Been Loving You Too Long" is wide enough to swallow the moon. The update makes the 5.1 mix the film's definitive audio track, marking one of the few times that an older film sounds better with a contemporary mix than with its original audio track.
All of the previous Criterion edition's extras are accounted for here, including an extra disc that contains nearly all of the performances from Jimi Hendrix and Otis Redding's respective sets. Those sets come with audio commentaries, the former from critic Charles Shaar Murray and the latter from critic Peter Guralnick. The main feature includes a 2002 commentary from Pennebaker and festival promoter Lou Adler that covers everything from how they brought all of the musicians on board to how Pennebaker approached filming the concert scenes. Old and new interviews with Pennebaker and Adler discuss the film and the festival's legacy, while Pete Townshend of the Who discusses Hendrix's Monterey set and Redding's manager Phil Walden talks about working with his late client. There are also archival audio interviews with musicians John Phillips (who also helped produce the festival), Cass Elliot, and David Crosby, as well as publicist Derek Taylor.
Various promotional materials for the film and the festival are also included here, most notably a photo gallery (with commentary) by Elaine Mayes. Newly included is Chiefs, a short film that played before Monterey Pop during the documentary's original theatrical release. The short shows a police convention in Hawaii where the officers' reactionary attitudes stand in sharp contrast to the utopian ideals of the main film. Most notably, however, is a new bonus disc filled with performances—from Grateful Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service, and more—cut from the completed film. Even the original booklet has been enhanced, as essays by Barney Hoskyns, Michael Lydon, and Armond White are now accompanied by new ones by Michael Chaiken and David Fricke, who explore further context around the festival and the film.
D.A. Pennebaker's thrilling account of the greatest of rock festivals looks better than ever on Criterion's new release, with a beefed-up surround-sound remix and a whole new disc of outtake performances.