July 25, 2009

Monterey Pop (1968)
Grade: 63/100

Director: D.A. Pennebaker
Stars: Mamas and the Papas, Otis Redding, Jimi Hendrix

What it's about. Noted folk-rock documentary filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker, fresh off his success with Don't Look Back, records for posterity the June 1967 Monterey Pop Festival. Musical acts presented include, in approximate descending order of quality, Otis Redding, The Who, Jimi Hendrix, Big Brother and the Holding Company, Simon and Garfunkel, Jefferson Airplane, Canned Heat, Hugh Masekela, The Mamas and the Papas, Eric Burdon and the Animals, Ravi Shenkar, Country Joe and the Fish, and Scott McKenzie.

Among those performing at the festival, but unfortunately not in the movie, are The Grateful Dead, Moby Grape, The Steve Miller Band, The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, The Electric Flag, and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band.

The Modus Operandi is to show one, sometimes two, songs by each of the featured performers. The rest of the movie captures the ambiance of the festival, at least from the promoters' favorable perspective. Thus, we don't see ten miles of parked cars, nor the lines for the portable toilets, but we do see many shots of beautiful and peaceful "flower children" twenty-somethings.

How others will see it. The festival is most famous for Jimi Hendrix setting his guitar on fire during "Wild Thing." Monterey also captures the height of the psychedelic-rock era, epitomized by Jefferson Airplane and their pulsating lava backdrop. The festival also introduced unrelated musical genres to a primarily white audience, most notably the steaming Southern soul of Otis Redding, and the Indian music of Ravi Shenkar.

How I felt about it. One has to say, though, that after seeing the likes of Otis, Jimi, The Who, and Janis Joplin, it is something of a letdown to sit though the 18-minute jangling performance by Shenkar and company. They play really fast at the end, which brings down the house, but we would still prefer to have seen The Byrds, or The Grateful Dead near their founding, or Steve Miller years before the album-rock success of "Fly Like an Eagle."

A few musical notables made stage announcements but did not perform. These include Rolling Stones guitarist Brian Jones and Monkees member Micky Dolenz. They have fleeting appearances in the movie's final cut.

Since John Phillips was the key festival organizer, we see plenty of his band, the Mamas and the Papas, onstage, in the audience, and working the phones trying (in vain, as it turned out) to get Dionne Warwick(e) to appear. John's wife Michelle appears to be there solely because she is a ravishing beauty. The commercial talent appears to have been Mama Cass Elliot, an obese but charismatic singer whose voice was unexceptional but well projected. Beauty persists, however, and today Michelle is the sole survivor of the group. Elliot died in 1974, reportedly choking to death on a sandwich, although per the coroner she died of a heart attack.

Many other leading musicians associated with the Monterey Pop Festival died young, which makes watching the movie a bittersweet experience. Otis Redding died in a plane crash six months later in 1967. Brian Jones died in 1969. The lead singer of Canned Heat, Blind Owl Wilson, died in September 1970, and within a month, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin also overdosed. On a more positive note, Micky Dolenz is alive today, as are the rest of the Monkees (as of June 2009, although Peter Tork is battling cancer). Proof that only the good die young?