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suppliedTitle,Monterey Pop

Monterey Pop

D.A. Pennebaker's Monterey Pop (1968) survives today as a vital piece of anthropological cinema. It's a woozy, tripped-out, pioneering concert-film-as-historical-earthquake event that began the definition of "the '60s" for anyone who might have been living through it but had been somehow left out of the fun,. When movies began, they were seen, in part, as a way to actually capture and preserve history as it sailed by - writing it "in lightning," as Woodrow Wilson was supposedly to have said, odiously, about The Birth of a Nation (1915) - and here was real sociocultural change, smack in the middle of coastal California in the middle of the American century's most radical period of societal and generational upheaval, filmed and frozen forever. It hardly needs to be argued, despite whatever politicians hold federal office, that we live in a modernity intensely shaped by this cultural moment - its civil rights ethics, its feminist ferocity, its rebel-yell eschewal of mid-century norms, its naive ambition to find bliss and fulfillment outside the parameters of slave labor and property ownership.

And, of course, more cynically, its conversion of real experience into mass entertainment. It's not the first rock concert film - that'd be the decidedly uniconic T.A.M.I. Show (1964), a record of a Santa Monica concert which bristled with the energy of James Brown and The Rolling Stones, but, being perhaps a few years too early, made only a small dent in the zeitgeist. It was Pennebaker's movie, a condensed portrait of a three-day mass concert held in June 1967, that became a generational event far larger than the concert itself. This is a paradigm that exploded in 1969 with Woodstock, an out-of-control circus of a concert event that became, with the 1970 film, a virtual definition of what the entire transitional moment in American culture was really all about.

One could argue that the map is not the territory, and these films are reconstructed simulacra that have supplanted the original experiences themselves, which were, really, simply performers and the people who came to sit and listen to them play. Fine, but it's tough to claim that something worth celebrating wasn't going on - and the films are nothing if not celebratory. Pennebaker's team didn't have the optimum recording technology later films would exploit, and sometimes his film feels and sounds as rough as news footage. As it should be, perhaps - the performances as they are still make a thrilling case for the moment in pop music, and how much it meant, in a particular and new way, to its fans. (That was rock's distinctive principle - that it meant emotional business, and wasn't just there to give you a nice time.) From the meandering warbling of Jefferson Airplane to the caterwauling drama of Janis Joplin and the self-destruction of The Who to the sonic divebombing of Jimi Hendrix, you get the sense not of polished showbiz pros putting on a gig, but rawboned renegades making something happen.

That's what was rock was -- and would be again in the punk era, and maybe again, in a kind of last gasp, in the grunge years, a cyclical reinvestment in authentic rebellion against glitz and hooey that would, every time, become subsumed by showbiz reflexes and media capitalism. It may never happen again, making documents like Monterey Pop all the more vital. For now, 1967, this was passion over crisis - the Monterey fest was the one big concert event where nothing particularly bad happen. From our perspective, it's a window on a kind of culture-wide adolescence, when noise was preferable over harmony, when impulse reigned over expertise (alert contemporary viewers will be surprised at the relative sloppiness of a lot of the instrumentation), when ideas of spiritual progress, however bogus, were entwined with the recreational psychoactive drug-taking, the release of sex and love from monogamous tradition, and the raw youthful idea that freedom was just another word for, well, you know...

The crazy psychedelic tie-dye projection system behind the bands, plus The Who's property destruction and Hendrix's guitar frottage, is as transgressive as things get, amidst glimpses of peaceful Hell's Angels, of band members with Scotch-taped horn-rims, of shaved skulls painted as mock phrenology busts, of monkeys (well, one monkey) with LOVE markered onto his forehead. The crowd we see is far from homogenous - die-hard hippies mixed with Richie Cunninghams and teen golden girls, face-painted Haight-Ashbury get-ups with suburban kitsch. (That's not unusual - in Woodstock as well, and all other windows on the era, the generational flood you see, which supposedly was so unified as a cohort, actually covers the waterfront in terms of its commitment to and comfort level with counter-culture couture. You could get throughly off on Hendrix's electronic double-trouble and still dress like My Three Sons).

The music climaxes, so to speak, with a marathon Ravi Shankar performance on the sitar that tests the event's tensile devotion to Eastern enlightenment just as it challenges the nerve endings of some of the film's viewers ever since 1968. Nobody said choosing alternatives to your parent's two-car-garage lifestyle, and their Perry Como LPs, was going to be easy or always pleasant, and today it gives Monterey Pop something of the aura of a rite performed and achieved.

By Michael Atkinson



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