Watching D.A. Pennebacker’s The Completely Monterey Pop Festival, takes us back to periods of history with an atmosphere of change in the air, as new music, new norms and more.
The film opens with Scott McKenzie’s melodic, easy going, “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)” interspersed with images of concert-goers with flowers in their hair, throughout the grounds the pop festival would be held on.
The Monterey Pop Festival itself, a large music festival that helped launch the careers of many up and coming music artists in the late 1960s included Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, The Who, Otis Redding, Ravi Shankar, The Mamas and The Papas and numerous other groups that performed during the three days the festival ran from June 16-18 1967, held at the Monterey Fairgrounds.
The festival is notable in music history as being one of the first modern major music festivals, with organization and effort, not to mention number of music groups, paralleled little in decades ahead.
Though Pennebacker sought to capture all aspects of the concert, from its inception to the performances themselves, yet he himself makes no appearance in this movie, allowing everybody who made the festival what it is tell the story through personal anecdotes but, more interestingly, the music itself.
Pennebacker’s creative camera work shows the reception of the audiences, many our parents age if not older, their names only known to themselves and their loved ones, yet they are as much a part of this as the performers themselves. If these people were not here, names like Hendrix, Mama Cass, Janis Joplin, performing with her group Big Brother and The Holding Company and so many other artists at this place and time could be as unknown as the faces in the audience.
Helping open up the festival, The Mamas and The Papas perform “California Dreaming” in styles of clothing befitting the period and the music. Pennebacker’s camera angles vary, as he focuses on individual performances such as Mama Cass (Cass Elliot) singing, or John Phillips or Denny Doherty playing.
Aside the psychedelic rock popular yet not pervasive throughout the cinematography of the festival, Simon and Garfunkel perform their folk song, “Feeling Groovy” in a darkened room with a red light being one of the few sources of illumination.
Jefferson Airplane performs “High Flying Bird” with the unique vocal styles of Grace Slick highlighting the work as the 60s concert trademark of swirling colors combined with films are shown on a screen enhancing to the eyes while the music is played.
Big Brother and The Holding Company perform their song “Ball and Chain” with Janis Joplin’s vocal talent making the audience take notice of the unique talents she brought to the group during her relatively short, but distinctive, time with the group.
The Who performs “My Generation,” the psychedelic liquid colors seen during Jefferson Airplane swirling in the back. The piece concludes with Roger Daltry smashing his guitar, finally ending with Keith Moon following Daltry by pushing his drums over onto the stage.
The Jimi Hendrix Experience gives one of their first U.S. performances, with songs like “Foxy Lady,” a rendition of Chip Taylor’s “Wild Thing” and others, utilizing Jimi Hendrix’s unique abilities with an electric guitar. The piece ends when Hendrix artistically smashes the guitar on stage as Mitch Mitchell continues to drum in the background.
The documentary concludes with Indian musician/composer Ravi Shankar and his group performing on sitars and other instruments of Indian folk music that western artists, especially George Harrison of The Beatles, would dabble in throughout this period in pop music history.
The audience sits in even more transcendental states of mind as they watch in awe of the mesmerizing music performed.
Criterion Collection’s 2003 DVD release of Pennebacker’s documentary not only includes the concert, there are additional performances by Otis Redding and Jimi Hendrix with other behind-the-scenes stories, montages and more, potentially of interest to fans of vintage music.
The Monterey Pop Festival, no matter what generation watches, offers a quintessential look at the 60s music scene.
Timeless thanks to the musical performances of all who played here during this unique time in world music history.