Monterey Pop & Woodstock,
Reviewed September 13, 2019
think it’s gonna be like Easter and Christmas and New Year’s and your birthday together, you know. Hearing all the different bands … the
vibrations are just gonna be flowing everywhere.” So says an audience member attending the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival before it's begun. She’s in what we assume are her early 20s. She wears a perennial smile and her short brown hair with blonde streaks, like France Gall. At the time, the statement, which is featured at the top of a 1968 documentary chronicling the festival, might have seemed hyperbolic — typical of an overenthusiastic fan. But more than 50 years later the concertgoer's musings might be seen
as objective truths. What other concert festival in recent memory has had a lineup like Monterey's, and has contained, to use her parlance, such good, flowing vibrations?
The event's bill is a murderer’s row, though many attendees didn’t realize its magnitude
hile watching the movie I recurrently found myself either seeing artists in different lights or appreciating ones I already loved in ways I hadn't before. I’ve never much liked the Mamas & the Papas, the folk-pop band
whose whole thing was that they had two girl singers and two guy singers who belted, with almost childlike reverie, to childlike and reverential instrumentals. The foursome had its moments: I love "Straight Shooter," "Snowqueen of Texas." But there's a certain insufferable tweeness to their music that cannot be enjoyed for too long of a time period, though I do like Cass Elliot, the amply voiced personality who in my mind is the leader of the group even though that role clearly belongs to John Phillips. I’ve been long tired of “California Dreamin’,” the act’s most popular and intermittently grating song. (There seem to be recurring periods where it’s used, usually in remix form, in TV commercials.) But through Monterey Pop did I feel like I was getting acquainted with something I was missing out on. The self-serious song, which has a cultish air, becomes octaves more enjoyable with the visual element provided by Pennebaker and co. Frontwomen Elliot and Michelle Phillips are clearly enjoying themselves, almost having to stifle their giggles; there’s an entertaining arguably in-on-the-joke melodrama to the ways frontmen Denny Doherty and John Phillips intone.
Of all the songs Simon & Garfunkel played at the festival, focused on is “The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin' Groovy).” The song, to my ear, has always sounded like the theme song from a horror movie starring a killer kid — the epitome of the unsettling sweetness a nursery rhyme could elsewhere provide. Pennebaker and his fleet accentuate the antic red spotlight that washes over them live, bringing out the track’s tacit menace. They make the most of eccentric stage set-ups elsewhere: adding a wooziness to the kaleidoscopic, fire-and-eyes projected backdrops assisting the whirling performance from Hugh Masekela and his band; the colorful boil that supplements the Who’s overeager, laboredly cathartic rendition of “My Generation.”
Sometimes Pennebaker and his cohort fixate on certain small items as any audience member might. Observations can provide the film with either humor or an I’m-in-the-audience ethos; sometimes they can be pretty perceptive. While Canned Heat hungrily go through “Rollin’ and Tumblin’,” zoomed in on are the feet of a woman sitting on a fence moving to the beat. Then the camera moves upward as she tries to juggle moving to the jangling guitars and drums while also delicately eating a tangerine in order to avoid getting orange blots on her shirt. As a concertgoer who also finds multitasking hard in the heat of the moment, I felt represented.
During Big Brother & the Holding Company’s tremendous cover of Big Mama Thornton’s “Ball and Chain,” the camera is particularly hypnotized by Joplin’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-them performative ticks. Most intriguing is how when she hits the highest of high notes or begins and ends a quick emotional shudder, she briefly pops out of her too-big high heels, complementing the way Joplin, in life and in death, really couldn’t be contained. During the set of Jefferson Airplane, who here is slightly more kempt than it would be in just a few years, whichever cameraman was on the scene appears to notice something that the audience or really anyone who actively engages with the band might: that co-frontperson Grace Slick is by far the most magnetic feature of the act. She’s so much the focus of the footage that we cannot say that the movie homes in on her. It'd be inaccurate, at the least an understatement. When the group goes through its second song, she’s playing the keyboard and lip-synching while another one of the band’s singers warbles away; indeed, she’s still the most interesting thing about the band even when she's not the one getting the spotlight in a given moment. (Factoids tell me that these observations were the results of purely technical mistakes on the filmmakers' part, but go with my interpretation and the movie's a lot more fun to watch.)
Closing out the festival and the movie is a performance from Shankar, doing an ardent but meandering sitar set with a couple of bandmates. It lasts for what feels like forever. There are three kinds of reactions Pennebaker stresses most. There are people who dance and bob their heads wildly to Shankar; those who look like they’re in a conversation they’re dying to get out of; and those who aren’t providing a reaction at all, sometimes because they’re sleeping. There’s no doubt that Shankar is a brilliant musician, but the old cliché goes that jam-bands and jam-artists aren’t for everyone, principally in a festival setting where there's some captive audience stuff going on. Though I’m not against the form, I’d probably be put in the second reaction group if I'd attended Monterey myself and if my facial expression had been captured for posterity by Pennebaker. (Jimi Hendrix, in contrast, belongs to the third.)
When the rather languorous performance ends, the crowd rises to its feet. But the way Pennebaker frames it clarifies that it’s a standing ovation that’s probably made up, in equal parts, by amazement and bemusement. It might be argued that ending the film on a note niche to the point of being alienating hurts the momentum. But I’d counter that and say that the choice instead cleverly subverts the chance of Monterey Pop being viewed as mostly a handsome highlights reel. It also speaks to the fact that there's not a festival that's across-the-board a slam dunk for every person in the audience, and that as far as these types of events go it’s impossible to build momentum anyway, with so much waiting around and so much unpredictability as far as quality and satisfaction are concerned.
There are three inarguable gems in Monterey Pop: excerpts from the sets of Big Brother & the Holding Company, Otis Redding, and the Jimi Hendrix Experience. They all of course played more than the single song which represents them here. If any person were to walk off the stage only playing what we see in the movie, though, you can't imagine anyone in the audience feeling particularly cheated. Big Brother & the Holding Company’s take on “Ball and Chain” is both one of my favorite pieces of music and my favorite moments in the movies. (Before I’d seen the Monterey Pop movie in full I wore out the clip on YouTube; second to that was the time Joplin and the full-throated Tom Jones sang “Raise Your Hand” together on the latter singer’s TV show.) Everyone on stage is like a cat in heat, consumed by an otherworldly force they can't control. The audience looks like they’re watching an Alfred Hitchcock movie; the sitting-on-the-edge-of-your-seat platitude is inventively cinematized. You can almost hear, based on the pin-drop silence, the open mouths of the audience members; same goes for the silent “wow” that comes out of the mouth of Cass Elliot, who’s sitting with her bandmates in one of the first few rows, at the end of the interpretation. It’s this performance, I think, that best evinces what made Joplin such an ageless, sui-generis performer. It isn’t often that we encounter singers belting so passionately and with such palpable belief in what they’re singing that just the way a certain note is uttered can result in a shiver.
Redding, resplendent in a lily-pad-green velvet suit, is quite a pivot from Country Joe & the Fish. It’s certainly needed. The latter group’s performance idles so much that the best thing about it is an audience shot where an enthusiastic-looking attendee chewing gum is ingeniously framed by a corona of hopelessly bored-looking ticket-buyers. Redding, like Joplin, can conjure stop-in-the-name-of-love fervor in what seems like any setting. But he makes for a nice contrast from her in that people don’t strictly watch him with in-amazement silence. His friendliness also inspires song-length shouts of encouragement from the audience. At Monterey, he was in his element.
The Jimi Hendrix Experience make a similar impression. Here is an artist, and backing band, so in command of their respective and collective crafts that they make what they do run with the ease of a newly polished and de-squeaked piece of machinery. We get just one song out of the JHE in Monterey Pop — a cover of “Wild Thing.” But what a restorative, visually significant performance. This is the show during which we saw Hendrix slam his guitar into stacked amps and then sit on top of it and set it on fire. He takes a moment to pay his dues to the instrument (it’s a wonderful perversion of prayer); then he smashes it into several pieces. It feels like such a moment, in part, because of the forward-thinking sexuality with which Hendrix performs. The guitar here is subversively both holy and sexual equipment; its destruction can be conflated with orgasm rather than mortality. Will this scene of musical spectacle ever lose its thrill?
iscovery was integral to the historic success (and unprecedented disaster) of the Woodstock Music Festival, which came two years after Monterey. So many people wanted to see what it was all about at the time
that it nearly ended in ruin. (Though one could say that it did, in fact, end in ruin; the legacy's the happy ending.) It inarguably surpassed Monterey in terms of size and cultural significance: They call it the Woodstock generation rather than the Monterey generation, after all.
Still, the multi-day concert was far more a catastrophe than anything else. It seemed somewhat organized in the lead-up. A stretch of farmland in New York was secured and supposed to have held around 50,000 people; tickets could be bought beforehand for a decent price; healthy accommodations were expected. The line-up, like Monterey’s, was terrific: Crosby, Stills, & Nash, Joan Baez, Sly & the Family Stone, Ten Years After, and other bands who also performed at Monterey showed up. (Monterey made so much of Woodstock possible: not just because it propelled the ascendence of many of the artists featured at Woodstock but for the interest in still-developing ideas for what a music festival could be.) To be fair, Woodstock was, and still is, something of a three-headed monster of the music festival. If it didn’t include so many exquisite performances, its romanticization would probably be nonexistent.
The story of its souring is famous by now. The site became so overcrowded (surrounded fences were broken through as if they were tissue paper) that its particular patch of land turned into a disaster site. There was not adequate plumbing, shelter, food, or medical resources. Unforeseen amounts of rainfall turned the area hazardously muddy. But the danger of it all, the miasma of “good vibes” and “free love” stewing in the air, and the aforementioned promise of discovery, were hypnotic. (If you can believe it, one of its doltish, way-too-young co-founders, Michael Lang, tried, and failed, to make it happen all over again for millennials and the older members of Gen Z this year.)
If Monterey Pop is a snapshot of a well-planned event that also happened to feature pristine performances, then the Woodstock documentary, released in 1970 and directed by Michael Wadleigh, is more an ethnographic drama than a concert movie. The musical performances are predictably, given the bill, splendid. The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s moment, which includes that symbolic medley that daringly included “The Star-Spangled Banner,” soars. As does the several-months-pregnant Baez’s gut-wrenching one-two punch and Crosby, Stills & Nash’s soothing “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes.” (You’re almost shocked when Stephen Stills declares, totally deadpan, that this is only the second time this band has performed in front of a live audience. “We’re scared shitless,” he confesses with a laugh.)
The movie is almost better as a testament to the town and property the event devastated, its attendees, and the cultural moment than a concert film. That is to say, it’s great at a lot of things, but it can be unnecessarily overwhelming. It’s stylistically uncertain. There was so much playing in the editing room that tableaux are often presented in split-screen, like in a Brian De Palma movie. (Editing credits go to a whopping six people, including Martin Scorsese, who then had only made one movie, and Thelma Schoonmaker.) Often there will be talking heads describing something while having that something be visualized by above-ground footage. Most of the performances are presented in split-screen, too.
Rarely is the choice effective. It suggests that Wadleigh and his crew got too much footage (which they did: there were 16 people and 120 miles of film shot) and couldn’t confidently decide what to tuck away. It also implicitly indicates that he didn’t think that these performances were thrilling enough the way they stood. Pennebaker’s direction of Monterey Pop works because it enables us to get as close as we can to a first-hand account; the constant visual artifice of Woodstock undermines the urgency that makes it otherwise great.
Still, Wadleigh and his editor cobble together a fascinating narrative. Even though they aren't comprehensive, testimonials from locals and concertgoers are emotionally vital. “A shitty mess,” one man who lives in the area calls Woodstock “in simple English.” The consensus is that while these kids are nice and what the festival represents is admirable and perhaps necessary in a cultural moment ravaged by war and political disillusionment, there is no denying that it was badly planned, and that everyone — even the small-business owners who initially got a huge financial boost — is probably suffering more than they are benefitting. “It’s like an army invading,” a woman who came to the area for a vacation, not knowing anything about Woodstock, observes. When people first started coming in, she and her family watched the cars as if the traffic jam was a parade. If that isn’t a great piece of comic denial, wait until you meet the young woman who calmly tells us that she hasn’t slept in over 24 hours, lost track of her sister pretty much as soon as the event’s first performer, Richie Havens, went up, and would be less concerned about it if her sibling didn’t have to be in court on Monday. (That barely gets her to react in any capacity, though she does laugh while telling a story about a “cat” — i.e. man — on acid who asked her what she thought the color of envy was and she said black first, then green, since envy is like jealousy and jealousy, to her, is greener.)
There’s a young couple that unwittingly demonstrates the fundamental puzzles of Woodstock: what drew people to it like flies to bowls of honey; an easily identifiable reason why it became what it did. I shouldn’t say the people I'm invoking are a couple, technically. They’re roommates with benefits. He, with long blonde hair and a patchy beard and nice cheekbones, says they live in a commune. She, who fittingly looks like a young Janis Joplin and who is almost preternaturally calm given the atmosphere, says they decided to go to Woodstock together only because they were both kind of interested, so why not. The young man tries to deduce why Woodstock has become such a phenomenon. He knows it can’t purely have to do with the music. Music is great, but not that great. He concludes, sort of, that it has to do with an insatiable need for discovery on the part of the young public — a need to find something that will free you of your neuroses, something that will get you off the hangers of your hang-ups. There’s no one root motivator, and it's best to not try to find one.
No one who attended, and no one who enjoyed the fruits of the festival in the ensuing decades, can probably easily put into a few words what makes Woodstock what it is. The greatness of both the Monterey Pop and Woodstock documentaries, at their core, behave similarly. We keep returning to them, keep looking at them as bastions of epochal eminence, for so many reasons (if not shallow then indistinct) that at the end of the day the simplest way to put it is the way the girl at the beginning of the Monterey Pop movie does. It has all to do with their vibrations. A
at the time. The festival, which unfolded over two days, included the Janis Joplin-fronted Big Brother & the Holding Company, the Who, Otis Redding, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Jefferson Airplane, Eric Burden & the Animals, Simon & Garfunkel, the Mamas & the Papas, and Ravi Shankar. (And those are just the acts in the documentary.) It seemed like, despite featuring almost-exclusively feverish performances, a laid-back affair — something of an oasis, in hindsight, compared to the multi-day events of late.
Monterey Pop — the name of the movie — might appear to be one of the great rock documentaries even if it were made without discernible personality. The camera could sit statically, watching the performers do their things without complementing what was happening on stage, and we'd still likely be moved. When Joplin is doing this, and Hendrix is doing that, the movie, for all we care, could be shot with a decade-old Nokia. But director D.A. Pennebaker, essentially the progenitor of the classic look and feel of the concert movie (Monterey Pop doesn’t have any obvious antecedents), knows how to present this material in a way that makes everything sing just a little more tunefully. Supported by a cadre of cameramen, Pennebaker generates bracing intimacy. The footage is so physical and unvarnished that what we see resembles the finest, most nostalgic of home movies. It fosters just as much of a sense of discovery as it does a feeling of I-was-there-ness; it is, as the music critic Robert Christgau wrote in 1997, comparable to feeling like you're in on a wonderful secret.
The appeal of a good concert movie or rock doc lies in how well the director can persuade us that we’re forging a new kind of affinity with artists who might in other contexts be beset with untouchability. Pennebaker’s style makes it difficult — though in this case difficulty is something to take pride in — to notice whitewashing or gloss, even though we know deep down that it’s there, considering that the film’s runtime is almost entirely taken up by stitched together concert videos rather than unflattering pauses for behind-the-scenes drama. It’s only when music’s non-diegetically playing over conversations and run-ins that we might freeze in a way we might in real life, as if we were encountering a celebrity in a hole-in-the-wall restaurant. Pennebaker’s of-course carefully built insouciance is astonishing — probably harder to have cultivated than it looks.
Some of the festival’s most totemic performers were up-and-comers at the time. Joplin was a nascent frontwoman. Her band, Big Brother & the Holding Company, hadn’t yet released an album; they were signed to Columbia Records based on their performance. (Then, they were still attached to Mainstream, who was behind their impending self-titled debut.) Redding, 26, had not yet become ubiquitous. It was this performance, paired with his untimely death that December, that would make him legendary.
Monterey Pop doesn’t date because its interconcerts don’t. While many an audience member might have been getting familiar with some of these artists at the time while gawking at them from their seats — something that, even for newcomers now, cannot be recreated or totally understood unless you were experiencing what was going on then and there — now you can appreciate the moment in part for how deftly Pennebaker and his collaborators captured what we’re still able to see and hear, and how smartly they caught the minutiae.
The Mamas & the Papas in Monterey Pop.