Wednesday, September 23, 2009

On DVD: "The Complete Monterey Pop Festival"

When D.A. Pennebaker and his crew of “direct cinema” filmmakers (including Richard Leacock and Al Maysles) descended on Monterey, California in June of 1967 to shoot Lou Adler and John Phillips’ three-day pop music festival, they surely had no idea that they were basically creating (or, at the very least, redefining) the concert documentary film. Few others of note came before (Bert Stern’s Jazz on a Summer’s Day and Murray Lerner’s Festival! are about the only ones that leap to mind), but many more came after, including Maysles’ own Gimme Shelter and, of course, Michael Wadleigh’s immortal Woodstock—for this writer’s money, the greatest rock movie of all time, and one of the three or four best documentaries, period.

The misfortune of Monterey Pop (both the festival and the film) is that Woodstock (see pervious parenthetical) casts such a long shadow over its predecessor. Wadleigh (and editors Thelma Schoonmaker and Martin Scorsese) were clearly influenced by Pennebaker’s film; its combination of event reportage and performance footage is mirrored, as is its structure (including the use of appropriate studio tracks during the opening footage of pre-fest preps). But Woodstock didn’t just ape Monterey Pop’s structural model—it exploded it, utilizing its expansive, thee-plus hour running time to place viewers right in the middle of that pop culture event, and using its large crew of cameramen (and Schoonmaker and Scorsese’s editorial genius) to create some of the most explosive music performance footage ever put to film. In contrast—and the fact of the matter is, most viewers today will view this new Blu-ray edition of Monterey Pop in confluence with Woodstock, particularly following the latter film’s 40th anniversary Blu-ray bow last summer—Monterey Pop runs a scant 79 minutes, and most of the few performers even glimpsed barely get in a full song.

So Woodstock it’s not. But this isn’t to imply that we shouldn’t celebrate Monterey Pop for what it is—an excellent, exciting film of an important, watershed moment in popular culture. There are some documentary interludes, in which we meet the people putting the fest together (primarily Phillips, seen enlisting the assistance of his wife and Mamas and the Papas bandmate Michelle to work the phones) and festival goers, but the primary emphasis is on the music (with some festival cutaways during the songs).

And the music is amazing. Canned Heat’s blistering performance of “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” nearly equals their exhilarating performance at Woodstock two years later, while Jefferson Airplane’s powerful rendition of “High Flyin’ Bird” and Eric Burdon & The Animals’ passionate cover of “Paint It Black” are equally memorable. But Big Brother and the Holding Company’s performance, featuring a fierce, forceful Janis Joplin, just about stops the show (check out Mama Cass’ reaction from out front).

Likewise, if Otis Reddings’ appearance doesn’t wind you up, check for a pulse; he brings the (mostly white) house down with his energetic performance of “Shake” and the growling sensuality of “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long.” His set at Monterey suddenly made him a mainstream sensation; the same goes for Jimi Hendrix, whose barn-burning cover of “Wild Thing” is still a stunner. And the Mamas and the Papas’ “Got a Feelin’” provides a lovely score for a fine montage of all the beautiful people (this, sadly, was one of their last performances).

Not everyone is on their A-game, though. The Who’s set is legendary, but they’re just plain off at the top of “My Generation”; Daltry’s usual tinkering with the rhythm of the lyric gets out of his control, and it starts out as a bit of a train wreck—and, of course, ends like one, with a brute show of destruction (dig the frantic stage techs running around in a panic). And the brevity of the performances is somewhat problematic—we just plain want more, and some of the acts (most notably Simon & Garfunkel) are joined in progress, not even given a full number. The abbreviated (and excluded) acts are all the more puzzling considering how much of Ravi Shankar’s performance is left in; it’s good, don’t get me wrong, but it just seems odd that they turn over a good fifth of the film’s brief running time to it (even if much of it is used as accompaniment to documentary footage).

The direction by Pennebaker (who also helmed Bob Dylan’s Don’t Look Back and John Lennon: Sweet Toronto) is strong, an interesting melding of traditional concert filmmaking and the fly-on-the-wall, cinéma vérité style that he helped perfect. There may not be a wealth of variety to the photography, but the intimate, handheld style puts us up close to the performers, and the film is better for it. You just wish it went on a bit longer; it seems to end just as it’s getting started, and we leave Monterey Pop ultimately wanting more.

Pennebaker and collaborator Chris Hegedus eventually attempted to satiate that hunger with two accompanying featurettes, included by Criterion in this deluxe Complete Monterey Pop Collection: The 1986 Jimi Hendrix performance film Jimi Plays Monterey and the 1989 Otis Redding-centered follow-up Shake!: Otis at Monterey.

The 49-minute Hendrix film gets off to a bit of a rocky start, belying its 1980s origination with a goofy, three-minute intro in which artist Denny Dent paints a portrait of Hendrix on an alley wall. That’s followed by some rather turgid narration by John Phillips (“He was the hottest act around. Two years later, he was dead”) and archival footage of the Jimi Hendrix Experience performing in England (including his legendary cover of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”). But once it gets to the Monterey set, it is electrifying; his smoky, grinding performance of “Foxy Lady” is outstanding, as is his mellow, soulful take on “Like a Rolling Stone.” But one of its best numbers is one of Hendrix’s more obscure: the blues standard “Rock Me Baby,” which he plays, beautifully, as a good old-fashioned juke joint jumper.

Hendrix’s rambling, 90-mile-an-hour stage patter is a little bit disorienting (during one intro, pretty much all I could understand was “The Wind Cries Mary,” the title of the song), and if the end of the set is a bit anti-climactic, well, that’s because we’ve already seen much of the climax in the main Monterey Pop feature. But they certainly couldn’t have left out the iconic image of Hendrix lighting his guitar on fire, then smashing it to pieces; music writers smarter than I have compared the competitive stage-smashing of the Who and the Experience, and (correctly) asserted that the difference is an interesting commentary on their style: with the Who, it’s confrontational destruction, while with Hendrix, it’s damned near erotic.

Shake! is considerably shorter (only 19 minutes, a five-song set), so it thankfully doesn’t screw around with a lot of set-up: one shot of the Monterey coast, then straight to Tom Smothers introducing Redding, who is impeccably accompanied by Stax Records’ best house musicians, Booker T. and the MGs and the Mar-Keys. Resplendent in a lime-green suit, Redding and his powerhouse band get off to a rousing start—this is how you kick off a set, with a tremendous, crowd-pumping performance of the title song (seen, in part, in the main feature). Next up is the Redding-penned “Respect,” which he introduces by noting (with a grin), “this girl, she just took this song from me… I’m gonna do it anyway”; he sings that and his “Satisfaction” as if he’s taking them back. “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” is also heard in the main film, but it’s worth hearing again (if for nothing else, then for the series of four “one more time” hits he gets from the MGs). My only complaint with the film involves the end; the idea of letting “Try a Little Tenderness” score a montage of young lovers and lovely ladies in the audience is a good one, but they take too long to cut back to Otis, who is, after all, performing his last number. That’s a minor infraction, however; Shake! is twenty-or-so minutes of pure gold.

Monterey Pop is occasionally uneven, and leaves you wanting more, but it’s an essential documentary nonetheless, beautifully capturing one of the watershed moments of the “Summer of Love,” and of 60s rock in general. Criterion’s Blu-ray offers a wonderful overdose of bonus materials and outstanding audio and video; my quick, unscientific comparison of the Blu-ray to the 2003 standard-def discs showed negligible improvements to video quality, but a much richer, fuller audio presentation, so audiophiles should buy accordingly.

"The Complete Monterey Pop Festival" made its Blu-ray debut on Tuesday, September 22nd.

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