By Leo Racicot
From the very first jungle beats and howls, you are shaking, gyrating, moving to the instant explosions of sounds and rhythms. Director D.A. Pennebaker isn’t fooling around; he dunks your ears–and eyes–deep into the Monterey “happening” of 1967’s Summer of Love and happy you are to be there, whether again or for the first time.
Only a select few concert documentaries can lay claim to greatness: The Last Waltz, Gimme Shelter, Stop Making Sense, Don’t Look Back. Monterey Pop stands proudly alongside them.
Pennebaker’s use of close-ups creates a “you are there” immediacy and intimacy. His camera never takes a breather thus avoiding clunky jump cuts – it glides and slides invisibly from one song to another; one performance melts into the next eliminating long pauses between numbers, awkward, tedious intros which must have been part of the proceedings but which are thankfully absent here.
The music is the star of Monterey Pop as is the tremendousness of youth, of youthful energy, that time in a life when fearlessness brings inner wonder from the inside spiraling outward into the world, an age when all things are possible. I thought of this watching The Animals’ fiddle player, John Weider’s intro to “Paint It Black”. His plaintive, infectious violin brings an almost religious hush to the air just before Eric Burdon’s electric can opener of a voice explodes into the lyrics. The entire purpose of the concert then underscored by The Who’s “My Generation”, Roger Daltrey’s boxy, punchy vocals jabbing in defiant counterpunch to Pete Townshend’s backbeat. Perfection. It was not the first time Townshend would smash his gift box on the ground in angry echo of that generation’s cry for change but it was certainly his most murderous; this image countered immediately with the sleepy quiet of concertgoers waking to a sweet, peaceful dawn, a symbol, as Pennebaker sees it, of the longed-for “morning after” harmony the hippie
revolution hoped to achieve.
Witness Hugh Masekela’s juiced-up, masterful playing, his wildman chants, his
feverish fervor. Janis Joplin’s vocal cords cut the air like jagged glass, piercing listener’s ears in heartbreak. Her song is an erupting witch of energy. Keep an eye out for Mama Cass in the audience, open-mouthed and adoring. Even she, splendid songstress that she was, sits spellbound listening to Joplin’s “Ball and Chain”. And watch Mama undulate in personal joy doing “California Dreamin'”; she clearly loves singing for herself as much as she does for the audience. Otis Redding. His energy is atomic, his bass voice generates more punch than the drums backing him up. Orgasmic. When he slides into “I’ve Been Loving You”, you know you are hearing one of the best soul voices ever given to us by The Cosmos.
There are no words fitting enough to describe Jimi Hendrix. His virtuosity on that guitar is not to be described. Long before he sets it on fire, he has already made it burn. The boy had genius in his fingers, his spirit. His early death, like that of Joplin, robbed the world of a rare music.
But what is really at work here is the brilliant way Pennebaker has managed to make a standard concert anthemic. For, more than anything, Monterey Pop is a record, an, enduring time capsule chronicle of a movement, a dream and a place now lost to us, a revolution that perhaps did not succeed long-term in changing the world but, for those days, those years, as honesty, it shined brighter than the sun that soaked its partcipants in love, in hippie freedom, in hope and in some of the best music that any era has given us. It radiates joy. As one excited fawn-faced blonde says as she waits for the show to begin, “I think it’s going to be like Easter and Christmas, like New Year’s and your birthday all at once.” And it is. You will love seeing the many totems of Sixties culture: glass beads, face paints, fur trapper hats, paisley maxi skirts, flutes, white lipstick, Afros, lava lamps. Everyone, performers and audience members alike, are fresh-faced, candid, mercurial. Pennebaker has made “The Summer of Love” timeless. He sensed these hippies and musicians had found a way to express pacifist alternatives to middle class apathy and ennui, to abominations like The Vietnam War. But Monterey Pop also thumbs a nose at old Hollywood musicals, throws a shovelful of dirt on the grave of them and invents a new, bristling cinematic method of presenting performers and performance. Music is important to most everybody but especially to youth. Every generation seeks to express its own identity through music. Here is the story of what that generation hoped to do for the world and did. It runs concurrently with film movements of that time (French New Wave and Indie cinema practiced by Godard, Truffaut, and Cassavetes) and borrows from Direct Cinema while experimenting with instantaneous shots – the action by aiming the lens at whatever looks suddenly appealing, energetic, illuminating.
I became very emotional watching Monterey Pop all these years later for this was my generation. The radical uniqueness of it, the shock remains, yes, but it glows now, in 2017, with a burnish that the ensuing decades have lent it, a sweetness beyond what was intended but a bittersweetness, also. Sitting there in the dark hearing again all that great music, watching all those sweet young faces — they could not have anticpiated Watergate, 9/11, Donald Trump. They bask in their own hopefulness, move to their own drum and after the concert is over, set out upon their own road. This was their time. No one can take that away from them. Such a lovely world they sought to weave. Let The Brattle take you there. You will be hard-pressed to find a more purely joyous moment in human and musical history
than Monterey Pop this summer!