In the mid-1960s, the music scene in Monterey, California, was primarily focused on Jazz and Folk music. The county hosted the Monterey Jazz Festival, which started in 1958 and is still running, and the Big Sur Folk Festival, which ran from 1964 to 1971. Looking for an opportunity to promote rock as a legitimate art form, John Phillips of The Mamas & the Papas joined forces with Lou Adler, Alan Pariser, and Derek Taylor to create the Monterey Pop Festival. It worked. While I grew up unaware of the festival itself and years removed from the culture it underscored, the music it showcased is an indelible part of my own life. To promote the festival, John Phillips wrote “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair,” which, sung by Scott McKenzie, is now an anthem.
Present and working during the festival was documentarian D.A. Pennebaker, who’d spent the early part of the 1960s pioneering what has come to be called Direct Cinema, an attempt to capture subjects and present the footage with little to no voice over narration and direct interviews. He was the editor of Robert Drew’s Primary, about the 1960 Wisconsin Primary between John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey (which I wrote about here); he wrote and directed a trio of documentaries about Bob Dylan, including Dont Look Back, the documentary about Dylan’s 1965 concert tour in England.
The result of Pennebaker’s work at the rock festival is the landmark 1968 documentary, aptly titled Monterey Pop. This documentary is important for its style, for its content, and for the way form and content fit together like a glove. Pennebaker captured the life and rhythm of this momentous cultural event that brought many influential performers into the cultural consciousness and more or less officially commenced the Summer of Love.
The Criterion Collection has just released a new edition of Monterey Pop in their lovely box set The Complete Monterey Pop Festival. This is obviously an important film for them; this is the second time they’ve released the set on Blu-ray. The occasion for this new release? A new 4K restoration, supervised by the documentarian himself. The set is packed, including not only Monterey Pop and a host of supplements, but also the 1986 follow-up documentaries Jimi Plays at Monterey and Shake! Otis at Monterey as well as loads of outtakes.
As I mentioned above, many of the performances are notable for jump starting the careers of many who performed. Janis Joplin, for example, was then known — if she was known at all — as the lead singer of a local San Francisco rock band called Big Brother and the Holding Company. At the festival, Joplin was really able to show off her charisma and passionate singing. She was only 24 and would be gone in just over three years, and this performance, captured and presented in the documentary, launched her to the stratosphere indefinitely.
Two of the bands were already becoming big in the United Kingdom, where they formed, but Monterey was the moment they broke out in the United States. The Who and The Jimi Hendrix Experience knew each other and had seen each other perform before. There’s a fun anecdote that at Monterey they were each intimidated by the other. They flipped a coin to see who would perform first. The Who won the privilege to go first, and they ended their set with smashed guitars, smoke bombs, and Keith Moon’s destruction of his drum set.
Hendrix went up right after and, well, not to be outdone, produced his beautiful synchrony of melody, vibratto, and feedback that was still completely new. He ended by actually lighting his guitar on fire. Does that upstage The Who? Absolutely.
There’s so much energy on display at this festival, and it comes through nicely in the documentary, which has never looked better.