Fifty years later, Monterey Pop is a powerful reminder of the 60s at their most naive

Just two years after its release, the music doc’s biggest stars would be dead and the rock festival as an entity in crisis

MONTEREY POP (D.A. Pennebaker). 78 minutes. Screens June 17 and 23 at the Hot Docs Cinema, June 17 at the Revue. See listings. Rating: NNNN 

The Monterey Pop Festival, 1967’s music blitz during the so-called Summer of Love, was a monument to naïveté. None of the filmmakers documenting it had ever made a concert movie before, the musicians performed for next to nothing, and the audience bedecked in hippie paraphernalia blissed out to the sounds composed for a generation of peace lovers.

Concert footage of the Who, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Ravi Shankar and an array of icons was shot with the first portable cameras that could properly sync up music to image, making the doc a crucial groundbreaker. With camera operators able to move around, images of the performers are spectacularly intimate, sometimes to a fault: filmed in intense close-up, the Jefferson Airplane’s set looks blurry.  

But that shot of Joplin’s foot flopping up and down out of her shoes while she’s singing Ball And Chain is one for the ages. And the way the camera operators, including Albert Maysles, get up close to Shankar – whose sequence, rightly, is the longest – gives meaning to the term musical ecstasy.

The performances themselves are uneven. The Who are ferocious, and the incomparable Hendrix, fucking his guitar, is incendiary, literally – though in retrospect both acts’ smashing of instruments seems like a colossal waste. 

Note that when the filmmakers are not concentrating on the stage, their cameras find faces of beautiful women in the audience, a sexist exercise typical of the era. Things have changed since then only slightly.

Many of the Monterey Pop stars didn’t last long after the film was released. Joplin, who’s glorious here, sweetly skipping off the stage after blowing the crowd away, was so stoned at Woodstock a year later that her performance hit the film’s cutting room floor. She and Hendrix were dead of drug overdoses by the end of 1970. Who drummer Keith Moon eventually succumbed to his excesses.

The peace-loving movement the festival was supposed to launch materialized for the historical equivalent of a nanosecond. Yes, Monterey Pop was the first of many rock festivals, but its success served only to attract a wave of profit-mongers anxious to exploit the hippie scene. And just a year after the release of Monterey Pop, violence overwhelmed the concert at Altamont. Oh yeah, and Richard Nixon was still bombing Vietnam to smithereens. 

The movie has been re-mastered 50 years after its was made. There’s something heartbreaking about seeing a cultural movement at its apex, knowing it would not have the impact so many of its proponents dreamed of.

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