Monterey Pop movie review: 50 years later, DA Pennebaker's concert film still awes and inspires
The 19th edition of the Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival is finally here, and with it comes an unending list of critically acclaimed Indian and international films to watch. Some of these are submissions for the Oscars, while others are hitherto untold, hyperlocal stories. Firstpost will review the most promising of these films.
The year is 1967. The setting: a packed open-air auditorium filled with a sea of people sitting on metal chairs for as far as the eye can see. The Monterey sky is a dull grey. All eyes are directed towards the stage, the audience seems unable to believe what they're witnessing. On the dais sit two kurta-clad men and a woman wearing a sari. They sit comfortably cross-legged, with a sitar, tabla and tanpura each. The man with the sitar is calm, yet the music he produces induces jaw-dropping moments. He exchanges a knowing glance now and again with the man on the tabla. An invisible energy binds the audience as the man on the sitar shakes his head to push back the black curls shrouding his eyes. He plays the sitar in a genteel yet ferocious manner, his fingers strumming with unimaginable speed, matched with confidence by the tabla and tanpura accompanying him, so much that at one point his hands become a blur, skin peeling around his fingernails, or so it seems.
The performance reaches a crescendo and climaxes. In one swift motion, the audience gets on its feet, the thunder of acclaim reverberating through the open space as Pandit Ravi Shankar, Ustad Alla Rakha and Kamala Chakravarty stand, soaking up the applause at a rock concert in California at the wild Monterey International Pop Music Festival.
It’s been 50 years since, and one can revisit and relive these moments only because DA Pennebaker was there to capture these instances and other iconic artists like Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Otis Redding, and bands like The Who, Animals and others in one of the first and most famous concert films — Monterey Pop.
The rock ‘n’ roll music festival was the first of its kind and took place at the peak of the counter-culture hippie movement over a period of three days. Colourful headbands, ankle-length dresses, open shoes were de riguer. The documentary was released again this year to mark the 50th anniversary of the festival following a special restoration which saw heavy sound editing and colour correction.
Pennebaker and his team of six cameramen spread throughout the three-day extravaganza with an aim to bring the musicians and their music closer to the people. Monterey Pop is a string of iconic performances — occasionally interspersed with shots of people sleeping on the ground before getting up and moving to the next venue.
The film salutes both the artist and audience that was there to witness the event. Most of the performances have extreme close-ups of the artist’s face, their body, their feet, thier hands strumming the guitar or holding the microphone. Pennebaker ensured we noticed the contours of Janis Joplin or Otis Redding’s face. The way Joplin’s body shook and her leg jerked of its own accord when she sang her breakout performance 'Ball and Chain', showed she was possessed with a streak of brilliance. The way Otis Redding opened his mouth and sustained the notes while crooning 'I’ve Been Loving You Too Long' and his eyes glistened all the way through reflected his pain and passion. In one of the shots, we can see Redding’s back against the spotlight, giving the impression of a god-like moment flashing on screen.
And, of course, there is the ‘Jimi Hendrix Experience’. Noise becomes music or perhaps, better put, Hendrix made music out of noise. His rendition of 'Wild Thing' was quite synonymous with his actions where he appeared to make love with the guitar before taking it off, laying it on the ground and setting it on fire; a sacrificial ritual for the gods. Monterey Pop captured the audience's shock perfectly. Interestingly, it was this moment that cost Pennebaker the broadcast deal with ABC, who told him to “keep the money and get out”.
There are many things one can do with a guitar, apart from playing music, as Monterey Pop documented. Just as Hendrix showed it could be burnt, Pete Townshend from The Who proved one could smash it to pieces as well, and throw it towards the audience, as a souvenir perhaps.
It is scenes like these which show how differently each artist — from Ravi Shankar, Otis Redding, Jimi Hendrix, Pete Townshend to Janis Joplin — perceived music. It was more an experience than just a product.
Speaking to Biography, Pennebaker said: “When you go to a concert, you sit in a seat hundred yards away but you really want to be one foot away from the artist, and that’s what we tried to do.”
Monterey Pop also included the people who went to the festival as well. It could be someone tapping their feet, drumming their fingers, swaying their heads in response to the music, or being completely awe-struck. Or just people being happy, or stoned, or passed out on the ground. This was the pre-Woodstock generation.
They were there at the right place, at the right time. And Monterey Pop was the result.
Monterey Pop is currently playing at the Jio MAMI film festival