Blu-ray Review: Criterion Celebrates MONTEREY POP's 50th

"I simply can’t comprehend a future [Monterey Pop] offering more comprehensive than this one."

Contributor; Toronto
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Blu-ray Review: Criterion Celebrates MONTEREY POP's 50th

The newly released complete Monterey Pop box set is vying for the most impressive package in my personal Criterion collection.

A little bit about my Criterion collection… I own under 100, more than enough to make me unwilling to do the work of counting. You better believe this collection includes Criterion’s monster offerings of rockumentary/music essentials: Dont Look Back, Festival, Gimme Shelter, Quadrophenia, A Hard Day’s Night, The Harder They Come, and most other titles that can be looped into the category of the music film.

Until this month, the prize pig of this sub-collection was the 2002 three-disc DVD release of Monterey Pop, with its beautiful packaging and vast array of features. After all, it was a three day festival, wherein five vérité cameramen were set loose to roam without agenda, capturing their on the ground experiences of a festival that, without hyperbole, was unlike any other before or since - and you better believe that includes Woodstock.

I’ve already written and spoken about Monterey Pop a great deal over the last year, as the festival celebrated its 50th anniversary, and I guess it only makes sense that the discussion culminates in the film’s penultimate home video release. I simply can’t comprehend a future MP offering more comprehensive than this one, at least not in my lifetime. Perhaps in a hundred years we’ll actually be able to purchase a three day hologram that allows us to attend the festival. Of course, by that time, the lines separating reality and entertainment will become so blurred that many will question if there ever really was such a thing as Monterey Pop at all. And the resurrected spirits of Janis, Jimi, and Otis, conjured to provide audio commentaries, will do little to ease this uncertainty.

In any case, at 50 years old, the film Monterey Pop, brought to us by the still brimming with stupefaction over the luck of it all, director and producer and audio engineer, looks stunning, sounds incredible, and to this day, remains an unmissable event. Last June, when the film was re-released theatrically, I was able to interview its 93 year old director, D.A. Pennebaker and one of his chief camera operators, James Desmond. That interview was a pretty in depth look, not only at MP, but also its essential precursor, Dont Look Back, which also celebrated its 50th birthday. In November, I added some much needed context to the discussion in my review of Criterion’s excellent release of Murray Lerner’s Festival.

I will do my best to avoid ground already covered in those two pieces, which I suspect will be less difficult than one might think.

The Film

It’s amazing to think that three days jam packed with content - not just of the musical caliber, but as importantly, of the happening itself, built on the culminating vibes the burgeoning love revolution, captured by no less than five distinct cinematographers, all loaded with healthy rations of film - was whittled down to produce a tight 79 minute film. If the great San Francisco Be-In that kicked off 1967, organized in January by Allen Ginsberg, was the movement’s announcement, then The Monterey Pop Festival, which almost officially kicked off The Summer Of Love, was nothing short of an explosion. 

Obviously, as far as festival happenings are concerned, it simply doesn't get more legendary. Not just because of its five star lineup of once-in-a-lifetime musicians, but the really unbelievably serendipitous nature of all these blindingly bright shooting stars, many of whom would soon burn out as such, being unleashed on a public who spent three days with mouths agape. Yes, the performers were the main attraction, but like the Be-In, it can’t be stressed enough how interrelated all these moving parts were in the overall organism enabling the superhuman talents of artists like Janis, Otis, and Jimi.

The performers were the talented extensions of the philosophies permeating the streets and minds of its snowballing scene, when for one miraculous minute, all eyes turned on intellectual expansion, often via experimentation, in countless fields. Waking up to an alternate lifestyle wasn’t just accepted, or even ‘trending’ (gag), for one moment in time, tuning in and dropping out was actually ‘pop’, and it offered beacons of light the atmospherical freedom to venture out far beyond known worlds into living myth.

Like a world record breaking runner redefining human capability, these are people who, egged on by pure atmospherical freedom, not to mention in some cases legal LSD, were able to demonstrate possibilities in human aesthetics that pointed forward to a life based on beauty. Yes, it was the kind of idealism that can only come from the young and naive, and yes, the 70s, and definitely the 80s, rather quickly dispelled the nation entirely, causing folks like ‘the big’ Jeff Lebowski to proclaim, ‘the bums lost!”, but did they? Not in the sense that there was ever any going back for society after ‘the heads’ had their way with it.

Some documentaries are only as good as their subjects, or to put it another way, it is often the case that the subject does most of the heavy lifting. In these cases, the documentarians are mostly fortuitous enough to be present to observe. I don't think anyone would deny that a Monterey Pop film in less capable hands would still result in a classic documentary, simply based on the footage alone. But just as serendipitously as all of the weekend’s other elements coming together for a perfect storm of good vibes, the exact right man for the job was hired and his incredibly fortuitous choices were no less happenstantial than anything he and his crew filmed.

The in-a-nutshell story goes that, Pennebaker, the direct cinema hero recently responsible for the not yet released Dont Look Back, was commissioned to capture the event however he saw fit. Similarly, the 41-year-old director, in turn, recruited a camera team of five colleagues/friends and random newcomers who found their way to the shoot by circumstances as arbitrary as any others driving the proceedings.

Take Jim Desmond, the amateur who ended up saving the day with his incredible vantage point of Hendrix while others were running out of film. Desmond without qualification basically asked Pennebaker if he could play too and was met with the response, ‘sure!’ Days later, he was on the stage, fluidly tracking Hendrix’s movements while hoping to not get cam-smacked by his soon-to-be-on-fire, violently flailing guitar.

For all the cameras often rolling on the same action, though Hendrix I believe was not particularly well covered, it is a testament to Pennebaker’s vision that he’d always champion the long single take - even strive for it - rather than over-cut an abundance of perspectives. Desmond’s Hendrix is one example. Another penultimate example is Pennebaker's own rear footage of Otis Redding who dips in and out of the light like some kind of powerfully soulful angel to the extent that many consider this shot to be prophetic. That’s not to say that Pennebaker, the editor, didn’t skillfully choose his occasions.

Perhaps my favourite aspect of D.A. Pennebaker concerns his eye - what interests him - and time and again it is the reverence of the crowd. Perhaps nowhere is this more fascinating than in Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars (also shot alongside James Desmond), but another of the finest examples happens near the very end of Monterey Pop. Just as the film knows when to let a good shot play out in full, Monterey Pop proudly concludes with the building interplay - an epic cresc-ending - of two musicians Ravi Shankar and Alla Rakha, two cameramen, Jim Desmond and (I think) Barry Feinstein, and one or many editors, cross cutting the performers with each other and the entirely complicit audience, in a fashion demonstrating the synchronicity underscoring almost everything that occurs.

After the tireless performance reaches its final note, a pregnant silence lasts a millisecond before an uproarious crowd, led by a woman who could be Parker Posey’s mother, literally jumps out of its collective seat with the automatic cry of “Oh my God!”. For a measly price of admission, the earth has been shattered. As The Faces once sang, “It’s all too beautiful”.

The Supplements

What’s New

In addition to the stunning new packaging, adorned with original artwork that is particularly beautiful spread throughout the pages of its giant booklet, there are two new essays joining the pre-existing ones examining the event from timely reportage to retrospective outlooks to other more nuanced subjects, such as the tensions between the LA producers and the San Francisco talent.

While the pettiness of such a squabble seems slight compared to the “all good things and all good times” philosophy of the event, it is at least worth noting the near-tackiness of LA papa, John Phillips’ suggestion that “if you're going to San Francisco, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair”. It's a nice anthem and all – it really is – but it is hardly of San Francisco.

There are also two new interviews: one with D.A. Pennebaker, conducted in multiple locations, and one with Lou Adler at the Monterey Fairgrounds during an anniversary celebration. Pennebaker’s interview is especially enlightening, as he touches on how he came to recruit each individual camera operator in his indispensable ragtag crew.

 Of the great new offerings, my personal favorite is the inclusion of Pop cinematographer, Richard Leacock’s 19 minute short film Chiefs (1968), which throughout Monterey’s theatrical run, often preceded screenings, making for a beautifully juxtaposed late-60s double bill. The film captures a police chief convention in beautiful Hawaii, where America’s finest blue boys meet to confer over these those troubling times, trade strategies, and also to learn of the latest gadgetry in brutalizing riot gear. As a double, this one-two-punch makes for a hell of an ideological wallop.

What's Old

The bulk of the stacked package is carryover from the ‘02 DVD release, but as I stated earlier, that release remains one of the all-time greats. The Outtake Performances alone are worth the purchase, considering it’s 30 minutes longer than the actual film. With so many of the weekend’s acts left on the cutting room floor, the availability of this footage is a huge relief.

Like the happenstance of almost everything driving this weekend, what footage would and wouldn't end up making the cut depended on so many chance factors, like who was shooting what when, or in the case of the elongated-by-design Grateful Dead, could the crew’s gear outshoot the band’s stamina? Even with Pennebaker's legendarily innovative new gear, which in this case consisted of film magazines so large they looked like giant Mickey Mouse ears, the answer was that they could not, resulting in tragically incomplete footage and kicking off a pretty hilarious tendency for The Dead to blow their chance of appearing in every film capturing a festival they either played or were meant to play - at least the trilogy of Monterey Pop, Woodstock, and Gimme Shelter (unless you include Garcia warning Jagger that Cassady just got his head bashed in…)

The supplements also contain discussion a-plenty; from the audio commentaries of Adler and Pennebaker, as well as music critics Charles Charberry and Peter Guralnick, to the audio interviews of Papa, John Phillips, Mama, Cass Elliot, Byrd, David Crosby and festival publicist, Derek Taylor. Another offering is a photo essay by Elaine Mayes featuring her stunning photographs from the weekend. By the end of these features, there will be little you won't know about Monterey Pop.

The publicity materials, including trailers and radio spots, are swell, but the real treat in this department is the original program you'd receive upon entering the fairgrounds, reprinted electronically!

Otis & Jimmy

If you’d like, you could opt for the 2-disc à la carte edition, still brimming with features - almost everything you’ve read about so far! - but do understand, this is not The Complete Monterey Pop. Let’s be honest, it’s utterly incomplete without the inclusion of a groundbreaking FULL SET EACH from both Jimi Hendrix and Otis Redding. Yes, this too is a 2002 old feature, but what’s new about it is its glorious HD transfer and 5.1 sound mix.

In any event, I can’t wrap my head around why anybody interested in Monterey Pop wouldn’t also be giddy at the thought of these performances, for which words will never provide justice. Luckily, as stated elsewhere, cameras - and lots of them - captured the shit out of them so one needn’t settle for mere description. But if you, like me, also enjoy description, this disc includes several commentaries and two stellar interviews, including one with The Who’s envious Pete Townshend marvelling over Hendrix’s physical fluidity - the way Hendrix harnessed his machine. The other interview is an enlightening one with Phil Walden, Redding’s manager from 1959 to 1967.

In Short

Whether you're completely new to Criterion’s Monterey Pop or updating your DVD to 4K, The Complete Monterey is an essential buy for anyone who cares about the late 60s and its priceless experimental music that for one bizarre moment in time was so prominent it was actually considered ‘pop’. In 1968: the year of its theatrical release, in 1988: the year of its home video release, at 35 years old, at 50 years old, at 100 years old, and so forth – in 35mm, on Laserdisc, VHS, DVD, 4K, 10K, astral projection, and so on - Monterey Pop is, and will never cease being, a simply unbelievable miracle of circumstances and human potential… a combination of the two.

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Blu-rayCriterionCriterion CollectionD.A. Pennebakerdocumentarymusicmusic doc