By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 16, 2006
D.A. Pennebaker admits he knew nothing of the bands he was filming or of the culture-shifting events unfolding before his cameras during 1967's Summer of Love. The pioneering documentary filmmaker calls himself "the most ignorant person" at the first and only Monterey International Pop Music Festival. Plus, Pennebaker explained recently, "I didn't know what a concert film was. I'd never seen one."
Instead, Pennebaker, who earlier that year released the now-legendary "Don't Look Back," his cinéma-vérité account of Bob Dylan's 1965 English tour ("it's not so much a music film as a personal film," he notes), made the template of concert films in "Monterey Pop." Released in 1968, "Monterey Pop" is now available as a fully restored DVD from Criterion, along with its two spinoffs, "Jimi Plays Monterey" and "Shake! Otis at Monterey," packaged together on a separate DVD.
Jimi Hendrix and Otis Redding arrived at the three-day festival in California virtually unknown. Hendrix, a guitar hero in England giving his first major American concert, floored the unsuspecting audience with pyrotechnics both metaphoric and literal. Redding, a huge soul star on Memphis's Stax label, was performing for the first time in front of a predominantly white audience, presaging a crossover to a pop audience.
Sadly, this would be Redding's last performance before he died in a plane crash five months later; Hendrix died in 1970. In 1986, Pennebaker released the full Monterey set by Hendrix (with additional footage bringing it to 45 minutes) and a year later, Redding's complete 18-minute set, brilliantly backed by Booker T. and the MG's, and The Mar-Keys on horns.
Hendrix and Redding weren't the only Monterey breakouts. Big Brother & The Holding Company were barely known outside the Bay Area; this was their first major "out-of-town" performance, after which the band rightfully gave lead singer Janis Joplin headline status. It was also the Who's American debut, a blistering set featuring Pete Townshend famously destroying his guitar before Hendrix one-upped him by burning his. In a DVD extra, Townshend recalls backstage tensions about who would go on first and thus be the first to introduce pyrotechnics and equipment destruction to America.
If the Monterey event was the world's first major rock festival, the granddaddy of all for future festivals, "Monterey Pop" established a style and standard for all festival films to follow. Two years later, Pennebaker turned down the opportunity to film Woodstock. "I thought it wasn't going to be as interesting musically; I wasn't thinking about how that crowd would turn out to be such a great filmmaking device, which in the end it did. I had to go away on a boat and hide," he says.
"Monterey Pop" has no narration, no backstage interviews; few words are spoken, even from the stage. "I wanted to get to the music because that's what it's about," Pennebaker says. "I wanted to get as much of that in as I could."
His film benefited from two prescient moves by festival producers Lou Adler and John Phillips (of the Mamas and the Papas). First, they decided to film and record the entire festival, hiring engineer Wally Heider's mobile studio, with the best remote recording equipment then available; in 1997, Rhino released a four-CD box set featuring most of the artists who appeared, including David Crosby, seen in the film saying, "Groovy, a nice sound system at last!"
And then there was Pennebaker. In 1959, he'd joined Drew Associates, a production group that included Albert Maysles and Richard Leacock and sought to further the use of film in journalism. To that end, they developed the first fully portable 16mm synchronized camera and sound system, which introduced cinéma vérité, which aimed to capture real-life events as unobtrusively and as naturally as possible.
At Monterey, Pennebaker arrived with new portable 16mm color cameras equipped to record synch sound. "Handmade by us," he points out. "They were very fallible, and we were very nervous about those cameras. I was amazed that all five of them worked the whole festival."
The Criterion DVDs feature high-definition digital transfers done under Pennebaker's supervision, engineer Eddie Kramer's 5.1 audio remixes into Dolby Digital and DTS, and assorted goodies, including audio commentary by and video interviews with Pennebaker and Adler and, on the Hendrix/Redding disc, extensive audio commentaries by historians Peter Guralnick and Charles Shaar Murray.
What's noticeable on both DVD sets is the absence of frantic cuts, soon to become a rock concert cliche, in favor of full, unedited performance. According to Pennebaker, "we wanted to give the feeling of a whole performance, not the heart of the concerto, as it were."