Pennebaker Looks Back at ‘Monterey Pop’
By Stephen J. Kotz
Never mind Elvis as seen from the waist up on the Ed Sullivan Show. When it comes to the defining image of rock-n-roll performance, it would have to be “Monterey Pop,” D.A. Pennebaker’s groundbreaking film about the Monterey International Pop Festival of 1967, which took place 50 years ago next week.
The festival, coming less than a month after the Beatles released their landmark album, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” and just as the mainstream media was discovering that something big was going down in San Francisco, has often been painted as one of the first major events of the “Summer of Love.”
And it was famous, too, for any number of performances. American audiences got to see the Who smash their gear after playing “My Generation” as frantic stage hands dashed out to pull the expensive microphones from harm’s way. Jimi Hendrix, who had been living in England for the better part of a year, one-upped them by dousing his Fender Stratocaster with lighter fluid and sacrificially setting it ablaze before smashing it and tossing the pieces into the crowd.
The festival also made an instant star out of Janis Joplin for her performance of “Ball and Chain” with Big Brother and the Holding Company and introduced the soul star Otis Redding as well as the Indian sitar master, Ravi Shankar, to wider audiences.
Mr. Pennebaker, a part-time Sag Harbor resident, already well known for his cinema verite style of documentaries, was drawn to Monterey as a subject for a new kind of movie he and other filmmakers were trying to popularize.
“At that time, the only films theaters ran were Hollywood films. The movies were always anchored by a star,” he said on Monday. “The big producers controlled the process and the theaters made their money selling ice cream and popcorn.”
Before “Monterey Pop” was released early in 1968, there was further resistance, Mr. Pennebaker said, from theater owners who feared a film of a concert — no matter how good — would not be able to compete with the live rock shows becoming ever more prevalent in theaters, clubs and arenas in that era.
Eventually, though, word of mouth won over the distributors. “People began to talk about the Who, Hendrix and especially Janis who became a legend overnight,” Mr. Pennebaker said.
“At that time, California promised something that had never been offered to young people, and it wasn’t just the drugs,” he said. “It was the chance to be part of a new generation, even if it only lasted a few years.”
Mr. Pennebaker’s film became legendary itself with recognizable clips from it showing up in just about every history of rock-n-roll that has ever appeared as part of a PBS fundraising week.
Rarely, he said, does he receive royalties for his work. “It’s very hard to police anything artistic when you are not a policeman,” he said. “After awhile you just accept it.”
Fifty years after the original festival, which was pulled together in seven short weeks by the producer Lou Adler and John Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas, promoters are planning to observe the anniversary by holding another festival on the exact same dates with contemporary acts including Father John Misty, Regina Spektor, Norah Jones and Jack Johnson. Mr. Pennebaker’s son, JoJo Pennebaker, a filmmaker in his own right, will be one of the cameramen recording the event.
And Mr. Pennebaker’s film, with enhanced surround sound, will be re-released by Janus Films in New York on June 14 and elsewhere on June 16.
Back in 1967, when Mr. Pennebaker, his partner, Richard Leacock, and other cameramen, including Albert Maysles, filmed the festival, it was a whole new ballgame.
Just as Mr. Pennebaker and his associates solved the problem of portability by designing batteries for their handheld cameras, they had to figure out a way to synchronize the sound. At that time, sound synchronization was typically achieved by having a camera with a telephoto lens mounted on a tripod back in the audience with a tape recorder set up next to it.
But Mr. Pennebaker and his team, who wanted to capture the performers up close, had assistants holding portable tape recorders accompany the cameramen as they made their way across the stage.
“What we were doing was solving the problem of getting on film what you wanted to see for yourself,” he said. “And what you wanted to see was up close, the performers and the audience.”
Mr. Pennebaker said he “was right beside them” when the Who smashed their equipment. “They had done that before, so I was ready for it,” he said. “What I wasn’t prepared for was Hendrix. I had never seen him before and my initial reaction was that it was just so much noise.” His opinion changed, he said, after he edited the film and realized that he had underestimated the guitarist’s talent. “He understood more about the guitar than anybody before him,” he said.
In the intervening years, filmmakers have often copied the Pennebaker style in making music documentaries, from “Woodstock” on through “The Last Waltz.”
“It’s not that it was so wonderfully made,” Mr. Pennebaker said. “It’s just that we happened to catch by luck people that audiences wanted to see. A lot of what you do is held together by luck.”