The Complete Monterey Pop Festival

Studio: Criterion

Dec 29, 2017 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

Earlier this year, I had the good fortune to watch Monterey Pop on the big screen, an opportunity I jumped on even though it's a film I've seen many times. That D.A. Pennebaker's 1968 documentary of the titular 1967 festival marks a quantum leap in live music documentary form is basically beyond debate, and whether the mid-1960s pop zeitgeist is your musical bag or not, it's hard to deny that these are largely exciting, energetic performances that are captured in a remarkable way.

Yet, with the havoc of the current presidential administration well underway, that recent viewing was the first time I found myself overcome by a new epiphany: this film is inhabited by a bunch of selfish, self-congratulating creeps. I'm not even talking about festival organizer/Mamas and the Papas singer/alleged child molester John Philips, either (though that's certainly a worthy conversation of its own): the faces of the audience depicted throughout Monterey Pop — as important to the tone of the film as any of the now-legendary performers featured — once registered as guileless and free, but in light of the garbage choices that same generation has made in the 50 years since, those smiling visages begin to feel like a mask for something far more sinister. Here, for the first time, I was able to see these freewheeling kids for what they would become: well-fed, well-funded beneficiaries of the hard work of prior generations, making the early moves towards putting themselves, and their individual pleasure, well in front of anything resembling social responsibility. It was already all built for them; it wouldn't be long before they started burning everything down for everyone who has the misfortune of following them.

I wasn't able to shake that feeling watching it again at home. People like to think of the 1960s as a glimpse of a brighter world, a dream dashed only by a callous, spiteful government who envied the Love Generation's libertine thrill-seeking, and there is a modicum of truth to that. Still, the vague rallying cry for "personal freedom" which bloomed in such a seemingly positive way in the '60s came from the same root that would later yield 1980s corporate greed, 1990s Third Way neoliberalism, and indeed, the narcissistic, anti-government rotten peach currently in charge. The dominant media would never frame it this way, of course, since the narrative goes that the 1960s were the be all/end all in popular music, culture, collective morality, and rebellion (gee, I wonder who's paying to push that story?), but I'm gonna call it as I see it. Now, personal freedom at everyone else's expense is basically the rallying cry of the lowest common denominator, which I'm sure was the idealistic point in 1967, but perhaps we should let out current circumstances be an abject lesson to be careful what you wish for?

Alright, with all that out of the way: Monterey Pop remains a clearly groundbreaking work, a technical marvel for its time which also vibrates with the excitement of a burgeoning, often well-intended youth culture. Nobody prior had shot live music in such an intimate, artful way: it's almost cliche at this point to acknowledge Otis Redding's pile driving performance in the film, and the brilliant camerawork that captures him as a sweat-pouring silhouette with a spotlight halo, but that's a cliche precisely because the scene really is that goddamn perfect. Hugh Masekela's performance, all too often overlooked among all the superstars-to-be, is blue-flame fire; Ravi Shankar's marathon raga, which closes the film, splits the difference between spiritual epiphany and Van Halen virtuosity, wowing on both levels. I'd contend that time hasn't been so kind to The Who, whose destructo finale seems ersatz and forced in the face of the similarly destructive, but ultimately far more third eye-opening, Hendrix footage which comes up on the rear, but it's still fun to watch Keith Moon flail like a Muppet octopus, so even that's not a total wash.

This anniversary box set also comes with Shake!: Otis at Monterey and Jimi Plays Monterey, films of each performers' full sets at the festival. A third disc of performances not included in the original film, ranging from speed-addled rippers by the Grateful Dead and the Blues Project to intimate backstage freakery by Tiny Tim, sheds a broader, more complete light on the festival, highlighting the festival's curious meeting of Hollywood's glitz and glamour with San Francisco's flowers and mud. All in all, this set affords the most complete Monterey Pop experience you can get sans time machine.

Few music docs have matched Monterey Pop on the level of sheer energy and intimacy, save maybe Gimme Shelter or the first Decline of Western Civilization. Still, I maintain that it's getting harder to watch these young men and women having the time of their lives without some measure of contempt, knowing how many of them would proceed to salt the ground for everyone else (finishing the job right around the time they used their massive numbers to elect fucking Reagan). With that in mind, while I'm fully willing to give Monterey Pop its due on its own level, I think it's about time we quit giving the 1960s so much goddamn credence, and start building a new world on top of what these assholes burned down. They've had plenty of time and bandwidth to bask in the glory of that brief moment when they were on the right track; it's the nature of the life cycle that we let things die, so that others may finally live.


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