As much a historical artifact as a documentary film, “Monterey Pop” captures the just-dawning optimism and eclectic, crackling energy of California’s hippie movement in 1967 while also showcasing what would become some of the biggest names in pop-music history.
The film, directed by the legendary D.A. Pennebaker (“Bob Dylan: Don’t Look Back,” “The War Room” and many, many other documentaries) was first released in 1968; now it’s back at the Detroit Film Theatre in a newly restored form to mark the festival’s 50th anniversary.
Like the time and artists it captures “Monterey Pop” is imperfect, yet vital. The festival was produced by John Phillips (of The Mamas & the Papas) and record producer Lou Adler, and they embraced a number of sounds.
The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and Country Joe and the Fish brought the San Francisco thing; Buffalo Springfield, Johnny Rivers and Canned Heat brought LA. Simon & Garfunkel represented New York, Otis Redding and Booker T & the MGs repped soul, and world music came via Hugh Masekela and an incredible set by Ravi Shankar that ends the film.
Careers were made. The unknown Janis Joplin blew the crowd away with “Ball ‘n Chain” and it’s certainly one of the film’s highlights. And two acts that were already big in Britain made their West Coast breakthroughs. The rowdy Who destroyed their instruments at the end of “My Generation,” then a mind-boggling guitarist named Jimi Hendrix topped them by actually setting his guitar on fire. Really, these three performances alone make the film worth seeing.
Setting the template for the “Woodstock” film that would follow in a few years, Pennebaker also lets his cameras wander through the crowd, capturing the enthusiasm and eccentricities. This was pretty much the first time anybody had tried filming such a festival (heck, it’s pretty much the first time anyone staged a pop festival), so some of the results are uneven.
The camera stays on Grace Slick all through the Airplane’s rendition of “Today,” but she’s mostly just mouthing the words — an unseen Marty Balin’s doing the singing. And why Country Joe appears in all its mediocrity yet more important artists who played the festival like Buffalo Springfield or The Butterfield Blues Band are nowhere to be found is something of a mystery.
It’s downright eerie to realize all the young faces in the crowd and on the stage are now in their 60s and 70s. For many who venture out to see “Monterey Pop,” it will seem part-mirror, part-reminder. The heartening thing is, the reflection in that mirror looks pretty good.
Tom Long is a longtime culture critic.
Running time: 78 minutes