It’s safe to say that this Music On Screen podcast wouldn't exist if not for DA Pennebaker. I’m not even sure if music documentaries or the “rockumentary”, at least as we know the genre today, would exist if not for DA’s towering yet understated influence. Thankfully it does, and even all these years after its creation, films like Dont Look Back and Monterey Pop, both of which have recently turned 50 years old, remain at the very top of the heap.
There are countless rockumentaries of superb quality, of course, all cherishable for a variety of reasons - the compellingness of subject, the approach to filming that subject, etc. - but I can honestly say I haven’t seen any of them as many times as I’ve seen Dont Look Back, Eat The Document, Monterey Pop, and Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, all of which were shot and edited by Pennebaker and friends. I can think of many music films that I’ve seen almost as many times - some that come to mind are Dig!, The Last Waltz, The Harder They Come, Stop Making Sense… - but there are qualities to Pennebaker’s early entries into the genre that are so magical in how they capture what they capture, that will make his films live on in a fashion similar to how we today regard the early field recordings of Alan Lomax, in terms of the importance and beauty of their posterity.
1967 is perhaps the single most important year for the genre and certainly for the career of Mr. DA Pennebaker - known to his friends as ‘Penny’ - for two pivotal reasons: firstly, beginning with a limited San Francisco booking, May saw the initial theatrical release of one of my desert-island favorite films, Dont Look Back and secondly, 50 years ago today, Pennebaker was dealing with the footage he’d just shot at the Monterey Pop Festival. The vérité Dylan documentary, which Pennebaker shot in Spring 65 throughout the U.K. wouldn’t take New York’s 34th Street East Theater by storm until September ‘67, so ‘Penny’, as I hope he won’t mind me referring to him, was still basically as unknown when he was approached to take on the filming of the first Monterey Pop Festival, as he was when Dylan’s manager, Albert Grossman, first walked into his office with the offer of following Dylan on his upcoming tour.
Back in 65, Grossman was intrigued by his newly engineered sync sound cameras, which Pennebaker and his direct-cinema colleague, Richard Leacock had been developing for a few years. This new DIY equipment made the typically burdensome big production aspect of filmmaking feasible to achieve in run and gun scenarios and, with it, the first home movie making machine was created. That this resulted in incredibly intimate footage of the 60’s most enigmatic songwriter/poet/performer is one of the many miracles that made Dont Look Back the unlikely product that no one saw coming - including those directly involved in the production.
Though I bet I could write a pretty solid book about Dont Look Back (if only someone would ask me to), despite its own 50th anniversary, the film of the hour is Monterey Pop, which actually occurred 50 years ago this past weekend, kicking off San Francisco’s utopic Summer of Love. If I were alive 50 years ago in my approximate current incarnation, today I would be still be reeling from having just left Monterey, CA with a head and heart full of heaviness. I’d probably be heading to San Francisco to keep the energy alive for as long as such a rich cultural force is capable of sustaining itself. I would not be on Facebook right now, browsing the experiences of other Monterey attendees through images taken at the expense of actual presence. It’s hard to even fathom an audience of today sitting through a three hour plus Ravi Shankar performance without a large portion of people texting with a mental foot out the door. I would have to wait until the film’s 1968 release to be able to see moving images from this special weekend, skillfully selected to convey the dense experience of three action packed days of explosive, groundbreaking music.
The non-figurative me first saw Monterey Pop when Criterion released its glorious three disc package in ‘02. There they were: Janis, Otis, and Jimi living and breathing and brimming with vitality, originality, personality, and above all, unbridled freedom of expression, burned onto celluloid for me to understand in a faraway lifetime. I, of course, had listened plenty to these greats, as well as the other incredible acts who graced the stage/screen that weekend - The Who, The Animals, Jefferson Airplane, etc - but to witness, to really see, is like unearthing an integral piece of an ancient force.
Not long before filming giants like Dylan, Janis, Jimi, and so on, Pennebaker first found himself filming a musician in 1964. The subject was his friend, American jazz lyricist, singer, and an originator of vocalese, Dave Lambert, who was auditioning a record demo for Columbia records with a group of musicians whom he assembled. According to Pennebaker, his short film, Lambert & Co., “didn’t get released, they broke up, and that was the end of it. Later, when (Dave Lambert) got killed, helping someone change a tire on the Merritt [Parkway], we edited it for his wake. A reporter was there from German television, I think, and wondered if he could get a copy to take back to Europe. I started getting letters from people asking where they could buy the record. I realized that if we hadn’t shot it, it wouldn’t exist. We had made a piece of music exist just by filming it. That really gave me a sense of what I should be doing.”
Pennebaker’s films offer, at the very least, that which would not otherwise exist, but make no mistake; these events in the hands of other filmmakers would fail to convey the experience in the visceral terms his films achieve with flying colours. As a filmmaker, Pennebaker’s sense of observation implies an open soul whose seniority never inhibited his curiosity, but instead offers an eye that reads between the lines of history unfolding before your eyes. Even if that history is long gone and dead, during the running time of his films, Pennebaker resurrects the life of holy ghosts and projects their energies onto a never-ending present, as anniversary after anniversary will continue to pass us by.
I can still remember going to see a print of Monterey Pop in ‘07, when the Summer of Love was celebrating its 40th anniversary. It's amazing to think how much has changed in my own life since that anniversary, which is to say nothing of civilization’s recent history. Time will pass and society will change in scary ways we won’t begin to fathom until long after that change has occurred, but throughout it all, these films will remain the same. Fifty years have now passed since that era-defining weekend and thus, Monterey Pop has just screened across North America, restored from the original 16mm camera negatives under the supervision of Pennebaker, and accompanied by a 5.1 mix engineered by music producer, Eddie Kramer. I believe you can still see it throughout the week and next weekend.
That said, you don’t need to be in LA to hear Pennebaker speak on the aforementioned subjects. In today’s episode of Music On Screen, I am honored to have for my guests, Mr. Pennebaker himself, as well as camera operator, James Desmond, who helped shoot Monterey Pop, as well as Ziggy Stardust and many other films by Penny. Throughout these conversations, I’ll have the opportunity to offer a little more context into Pennebaker’s cinematic journey, as well as the chance to talk a bit more about my favorite film, Dont Look Back. If you have yet to see either of these films, it is literally never too late, as they are not going anywhere. If you have, I still suggest celebrating this priceless 50 year old double bill.
Intro - 0:00
DA Pennebaker Interview - 25:00
James Desmond Interview - 1:00:00