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Music, Love and Flowers: Monterey Pop on Blu-ray

  Before Woodstock came along, in both concert and cinematic form, the big movie for the so-called peace and love generation was Monterey Pop, though it was overshadowed as the definitive statement on their music. But there are many who will stick up for it, and the film that resulted, largely thanks to it being a pioneer of sorts, a point when pop culture could be seen to be changing and pop music was evolving into something different, something with a harder edge and more danger about it. Sure, certain people had been up in arms about Elvis Presley when he arrived on the scene in the late nineteen-fifties, but it was as if the quality of the music and its implications were finally catching up with everything those aghast back then had believed Presley stood for, taking on subjects and shapes the King of Rock 'n' Roll would never have considered.


The Monterey International Pop Music Festival, to give its full title, took place slap bang in the middle of the Summer of Love in 1967 where the hippies were fast becoming the major news story of the year, a counterpoint to the misery in Vietnam and the Civil Rights disturbances that were taking over the nightly television news stories and newspaper headlines. Somehow here was an answer to the plague of violence blighting the world: just don't do it, just turn to love instead, everyone will be a lot happier and a whole lot fewer people will die horribly. Of course, the path to that was mind-expansion, and soon the scene was gripped by drug abuse as the flower children dabbled in marijuana and LSD then graduated, or descended, into the horrors of heroin addiction, but for a while in '67 it was considered by many that they had an answer.

The festival was held from the 16th to the 18th of June, a three-day "Love-In" (as the first person we see described it) of music at the cutting edge of what people were listening to, organised by concert promoter Lou Adler and musician John Phillips, of The Mamas and the Papas fame. They asked documentarian D.A. Pennebaker, who had recently enjoyed success with his Bob Dylan film Don't Look Back, to gather a crew together and record what happened, and thus we had this film to enjoy, though at just under eighty minutes obviously we were not going to get the whole kit and caboodle. What we did get enthused cinema audiences of the sixties, and going into the seventies the midnight movie fans, then thereafter became a nostalgia piece where those who had been around at the time were transported back through the decades.

That was not to say you had to be around back in '67 to appreciate Monterey Pop, and sure enough music buffs of later generations were inexorably drawn to watch it, thanks to Pennebaker capturing a variety of artists who sadly did not have very long to live. The casualty rate of the performers we see was quite alarming, be they the mainstream celebrities like Phillip' bandmate Mama Cass Elliot who would be dead of a heart attack within a few years, or the more hard blues rock exponents like Janis Joplin, shown jumping out of her shoes as she delivered Ball and Chain as Elliot watches on in rapt admiration. For one thing, that illustrated the wide range of acts it was possible to see on the occasion, and for another it demonstrated that the old cliché of rock where you live fast and die young had already taken hold, leaving a poignant air.

Doubly so when the dreams of the hippies passed, and became regarded as either quaint, a joke, or a philosophy that was actively harmful - especially if you were in any way connected to or endorsing The Man. This rendered Monterey Pop a time capsule in other ways as Pennebaker trained his cameras on the crowd, taking the same close-up approach to them as he did the performers, though as others have mentioned he did seem to be seeking out young women he fancied for quite a bit of the time; perhaps those girls best represented the hippy hopes and philosophy? Let's say that. But it was the show-stopping likes of The Who, destroying their instruments, Otis Redding, blowing the audience away while backed by Booker T. and the MGs, or Jimi Hendrix setting fire to his guitar and mischievously encouraging the flames with lighter fluid and sheer willpower that endured.

That said, it would appear Pennebaker was most taken with Ravi Shankar whose set takes up far longer than anyone else's to provide the finale, which fair enough was a virtuoso performance as ever, but you would imagine many would have preferred an extra song from one or two of the other acts on the bill. David Crosby, for example, is seen at the beginning complimenting the concert on its sound system, but is nowhere to be heard thereafter, though he did bring up an important point that the best technology was brought to bear to have the music sounding as good as it possibly could, and that made a difference. Interesting to note Micky Dolenz right at the end offering Shankar a standing ovation, when the music of The Monkees would have been seen as anathema to the average rock fan then or later into the seventies.

Criterion, the collector's label for film, released a 2002 DVD of Monterey Pop featuring two hours of unseen performances kept in the vaults from that day to then, and on the fiftieth anniversary they have released a three disc Blu-ray box set as the definitive statement on the concert and its subsequent movie. Included on disc one are new interviews with Pennebaker and Adler to accompany the previous set's interviews and an audio commentary they contributed to as well, along with music critics Charles Shaar Murray and Peter Guralnick. The new interviews see Adler at an anniversary Monterey concert reminiscing about what the original changed, from design to performers' rights, and Pennebaker at a 2017 showing in Bologna, remembering Janis and Jimi and all those cameramen who helped him out, his inspiration being Murray Lerner's 1967 Festival.

Also on disc one are a selection of photographs and a facsimile of the festival programme, plus an item that was associated with the film on its release, for Chiefs was the short that supported it. While Monterey Pop preferred to leave politics to one side and concentrate on the music and vibes, though there was the occasional shot featuring a policeman, this twenty-minute effort saw Richard Leacock, a photographer on the main feature, venture to Hawaii and a Police Chiefs convention from October 1968. Apparently all concerned were very happy with how this turned out, showing these middle-aged white men testing weaponry and discussing the civil unrest and new movements such as the Black Panthers which were springing up across the United States, but for those who turned out to hear the music, there must have been a sense of "know thy enemy" about watching this.

On disc two are the extensive outtakes and while not every performance is included, so no Lou Rawls for example, the footage certainly filled in a number of gaps for those intrigued to see what had been left out of the original movie. You could understand why the inclusion of one too many blues rock jams might have been a step too far, and there was a shade too much of the chugging guitars in some overextended sets, but The Association, who opened the whole concert, were left out apparently because they were judged not to be as cool as everyone else, no matter that on this evidence their musicianship (and sense of humour) were highly entertaining. Also on the first day, Simon and Garfunkel were shown to have delivered very decent versions of songs better suited than Feelin' Groovy to the official record.

Some choices could not have been made any other way, of course, as while the song by The Who we saw in Monterey Pop was not them sounding their best, it did climax with them smashing up their instruments which obviously meant it had to be included, though the outtakes illustrated better renditions had been heard immediately before - A Quick One While He's Away was particularly impressive. The Byrds were a curious exclusion, though you could understand why David Crosby espousing the JFK conspiracy theory from the stage was given the chop, and for some the most interesting part was Laura Nyro since she always claimed to have been booed off which shattered her confidence - as we see, nothing of the sort occurred, she was given a warm round of applause for which she thanks the audience.

Deadheads would be pleased to see The Grateful Dead from day three, though for non-converts it would be difficult to discern whether they were on form or business as usual, but there were performances from acts already in the film. The Who, as mentioned, wowing the crowd (this was what broke them in America), Big Brother and the Holding Company too (odd to see Janis as more or less a backing singer, however), and The Mamas and the Papas demonstrating Elliot could have pursued a successful career in comedy, such was her witty between songs banter. They got Scott McKenzie on with them to trill Phillips' hit theme song for the event, San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Some Flowers in Your Hair). They were last on, but if you wanted to see the legendary performances by Hendrix and Otis Redding, you were not out of luck.

For on disc three, there was a pairing of the films Jimi Plays Monterey, one of an array of concert movies for him that proliferated as midnight movies, especially popular after his untimely death, with Shake! Otis at Monterey, where the similarly shortlived icon of sixties soul put across one of the most dynamic sets ever seen in a festival concert, with the audience eating out of the palm of his hand: he must have been walking on air after that night. There are commentaries on both films, and a couple of interviews, including Pete Townshend recalling how there was an unwanted rivalry over who went on first, his band or Hendrix's, since they both planned to smash up their guitars (Brian Jones tossed a coin and Pete won). All in all, one of the great concert box sets, and Criterion have seen to supply a fine HD image and sound: you might even be tempted to watch the Tiny Tim footage taken from the green room.

The Complete Monterey Pop Festival is available on Bluray and DVD now. Click here for Amazon.
Author: Graeme Clark.

 

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Last Updated: 31 March, 2018