' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Monterey Pop (1968)

Friday, July 10, 2020

Friday's Old Fashioned: Monterey Pop (1968)

D.A. Pennebaker’s concert film of the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, opens not with, I don’t know, “The Golden Road (To Unlimited Devotion)” but Scott McKenzie’s “San Francisco (Be Sure To Wear Flowers In Your Hair)”, a staple of oldies stations that quite famously John Phillips of The Mamas and Papas wrote to settle the nerves of people who did not want Monterey to host all these damn hippies in the first place. As the song plays, “Monterey Pop” just sort of people watches, cutting between an assortment of bohemian revelers. During the Summer of Love, of which Monterey Pop was part and parcel, tourists flocked to San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood to see the hippies up close, sometimes even taking bus tours, like these nonconformists were rare specimens in the San Francisco Zoo. And so it’s easy to wonder if that’s how these members of the counterculture who attended the fest felt about Pennebaker’s cameras, rendering us, the viewer, similar to the Haight tourists, voyeurs through the camera lens.

Still, if “Monterey Pop” might be a wax museum with a pulse, the music is undeniable. It is now universally accepted that despite its place in lore, Woodstock, two years later, was about something else entirely than the music while the music made Monterey. Pennebaker’s document bears this out. Occasionally his cameras are at the front of the stage, like capturing The Who in all their instrument smashing glory, as well as Jefferson Airplane, to record the moment when Grace Slick, biding her time downstage, suddenly slides into the DMs, so to speak, of all the others. Mostly, though, his camera remains off to the side, watching from the wings, letting us see these bright stars of the universe up close. Pennebaker furthers this intimate sensation by mostly forgoing wide crowd shots, preferring to cut between close-ups of the performers and close-ups of individual audience members, like a young woman bathed in red watching as Jimi Hendrix lights his guitar on fire as if the flames have put a spell on her.

Monterey famously helped push Otis Redding to stardom and in the denouement of his stunning rendition of “I’ve Been Loving You (for Too Long)”, we see him behind as his head bobs up and down, the spotlight in front practically blinding us each time does, improbably rendering him as he was — a star shooting across the sky. And then there is Janis Joplin whom Monterey helped make too. She was fronting Big Brother and the Holding Company, a bluesy outfit, whom we see noodling for a brief moment before Janis, foreshadowing the band’s turn, takes over, the editing creating a rhythmic sway by cutting between close-ups of her at the microphone and full shots from the rear where she kicks her legs. And rather than exploding at the conclusion, like a balloon popping, she almost seems to float away in the manner of a balloon instead, bouncing to the back of the stage, high on what she knows she just did. You know in the most recent “A Star is Born” when Jackson Maine cedes the stage to Ally and she shines so bright? That’s this moment for real. It’s astonishing.

It was also her second performance of the festival with Big Brother and the Holding Company. They had performed previously during the festival, though the set went unrecorded, causing them to play a couple songs on a different night for the benefit of the cameras, inadvertently going against the counterculture’s anti-consumerism stance to sell yourself, the very one The Grateful Dead honored by refusing to perform for the cameras. If these dueling ideas suggest the eventual decline of the hippie movement, Pennebaker nevertheless gives it a rousing moment in the sun. Because if “Monterey Pop” seems on the verge of ending with images of festival-goers packing up and moving out, Pennebaker returns to the stage for a set by Indian musician Ravi Shankar. He cuts back and forth between the sitar and drums, the tight close-ups of their frenetic playing echoing earlier close-ups of Keith Moon’s wildly eccentric drumming for The Who, cosmically linking two disparate styles. And rather than exit early from Shankar’s performance, Pennebaker lets it go on and on, effectively drawing us in, expanding our consciousness.

No comments: