DVD Review: Monterey Pop

STUDIO: Criterion | DIRECTOR: D.A. Pennebaker | CAST: Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Otis Redding, the Mamas and the Papas, Simon and Garfunkel, Ravi Shankar
RELEASE DATE: 12/12/17 | PRICE: Price: DVD $22.99, Blu-ray $29.99
BONUSES: audio commentary by Pennebaker and Lou Adler, vintage audio interviews with participants, new interviews with Pennebaker and Adler, short “Chiefs,” program booklet feature, photo-essay by Elaine Mayes
SPECS: NR | 80 min. | Documentary | 1.37:1 widescreen | 5.1 surround

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie  | Audio | Video  | Overall

The 1967 Monterey Pop festival isn’t as historically important as the rock festivals that followed – Woodstock, Altamont and the Isle of Wight. It was, however, more important musically, since the festival featured career-making performances by Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Otis Redding. And it was enshrined in Monterey Pop, the tightly made 1968 film by D.A. Pennebaker  (The War Room) that has remained in distribution since the home entertainment market began.

The latest release of the film comes on the 50th anniversary of the festival and includes a handful of brand new supplements amidst the old (Criterion first released the three-disc Complete Monterey Pop Festival on DVD in 2002). Pennebaker and producer Lou Adler are the most heard-from individuals in the package. They supply information about the creation of the festival and the documentary, but the film speaks quite well for itself, five decades on.

Although several dozen acts performed during the three days of the festival, a mere twelve were included by Pennebaker in the film.  A lot leaner than Woodstock and less depressing than Message to Love: the Isle of Wight Festival, the film is primarily comprised of musical performances. Its brief running time seems to have been intended to ensure the picture could play on double bills across the country after its initial release.

Pennebaker was wise enough to include the requisite studies of the crowd during an afternoon performance by Ravi Shankar, so no visual pyrotechnics were lost. This was, after all, the festival at which both the Who and Hendrix destroyed their instruments as a closer.

The supplements that have already been part of prior releases of the film include an audio commentary track by Pennebaker and Adler. Very lively indeed are a series of audio interviews with David Crosby, and the now-departed John Phillips, Derek Taylor and Cass Elliott. Taylor and Phillips describe how the festival went from being a commercial event to a charity affair as more stars signed on to the program (which was initially intended to match jazz and folk festivals in terms of musical professionalism and an eclectic roster of talent).

Cass supplies the most enjoyable revelations, as she talks about the thing that struck her first about Janis before she heard her legendary voice (the fact that Joplin performed without wearing a bra). She is also honest about the most “terrible” performances given at the festival. The first of which was Laura Nyro (only seen in outtakes in the bigger Monterey Pop package), whom Cass idolized but had an “off” night at the festival. The other act? The Mamas and the Papas, who did no rehearsals because John Phillips was too tied up with organizing the event.

The most notable namedrops in the audio interviews are of movie stars, not rock stars. Derek Taylor notes the Beatles were not in attendance, despite prevalent rumors that they were. Taylor notes that he encountered Dennis Hopper, Harry Dean Stanton and a young Harrison Ford at the event. Phillips’ provides even weirder namedrops when he notes that “Kim Novak was backstage serving things behind the buffet” and “Doris Day was there, helping out, bandaging up wounds.” (That image leaves one to ponder if Doris was particularly cool or if Phillips’ imagination was working overtime.)

A mutual video interview between Adler and Pennebaker from 2001 finds the pair discussing the genesis of the festival, and the fact that the film was going to be an ABC TV special (an ABC executive wouldn’t let the show be seen because of Hendrix setting his guitar on fire).

Pennebaker notes that a particularly difficult editing dilemma he faced was solved by Truman Capote. When Capote saw a rough cut by chance and hated the clothing worn by the Electric Flag, Pennebaker experimented with cutting their performance and felt the film flowed more smoothly afterward.

The new supplements made exclusively for this release are oriented to the film’s 50th anniversary. Adler is interviewed at the Monterey Pop concert held in June of 2017. (Michelle Phillips was the only major original Monterey performer to attend.) He notes that the ’67 festival was a turning point of many kinds — in particular, it represented the first time that some recording artists could dictate the terms of their contracts.

Pennebaker is interviewed at the 50th anniversary festival and also the Bologna Film Festival, where the film was screened. He reminisces about the shooting the festival with a team that included his colleagues Richard Leacock (Louisiana Story) and of Albert Maysles (Grey Gardens), and a few gents “off the street” — fledgling cameramen who had never worked on such a big project before.

His final statements address the obvious topic of the sad deaths of Monterey’s big show stoppers, noting that he became friends with both Joplin and Hendrix after the festival ended. His insights about Joplin are especially interesting, as he compares her career from ’68-’70 to driving “in a high-speed car” about to crash.

This single-disc title has been released by Criterion in conjunction with a three-disc set called The Complete Monterey Pop Festival, which includes the original feature, plus Jimi Plays Monterey and Shake! Otis at Monterey, and two hours of performance outtakes.


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About Ed

Ed Grant has written about film for a wide range of periodicals, books and websites. He edited the reference book The Motion Picture Guide Annual and, since 1993, has produced and hosted the weekly cable program Media Funhouse, which Time magazine called “the most eclectic and useful movie show on TV.”