Before Woodstock, there was the Monterey Pop music festival. The three day concert in June of 1967 was one of the greatest assemblies of the musicians and music lovers of the hippie generation. D.A. Pennebaker’s documentary, named after the festival, is an astonishing concert film that transports the viewer back to the festival, and more impressively takes the viewer back to the 60’s and back to their youth in a mindset of peace, discovery, and resistance. In showing the musical greats who performed at the festival and their admirers, he reminds us of the joy and pain of finally reaching the age where we first begin to understand the world around us as adults.
Pennebaker has made a career as one of America’s most influential documentarians, from music documentaries like Monterey Pop and Don’t Look Back, to game changing political films like The War Room. His straightforward style and ability to tell a story by letting the story tell itself has made his film timeless and impactful across generations. Monterey Pop spotlights the hippies, but really it offers us a slice of an America which is undergoing deep-seeded political strife and transports us to a single moment when people would gather and find joy and togetherness bonding over something as universal as music.
Perhaps the most famous performance featured in Pennebaker’s film is that of Jimi Hendrix, whose enthusiasm and rebellious spirit as well as his stunning abilities on the guitar stand out as an iconic symbol of the era the film is capturing. One can not help but revel in the ability to see, in action, one of the great performers of the 20th century. One also wonders what it might have been like to actually stand in the crowd and watch Hendrix light his guitar on fire. A fifty minute extended short film spotlighting his performance, appropriately titled Jimi Plays Monterey, was released in 1986 and codirected by Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus.
Other iconic performances are also included throughout the film. The Mamas and the Papas perform their famous California Dreamin’. Simon and Garfunkel appear as two of the great poets of the hippie generation. Otis Redding gives an iconic performance of I’ve Been Loving You Too Long that is still the most well known rendition of the song to this day. Ravi Shankar reminds us of the artistic experimentation that was enjoyed by this unique generation of free spirits. The Who, Janis Joplin, and Jefferson Airplane among many others finish off the nostalgic spirit that make this film so great.
Perhaps the final element that ties the whole movie together is the frequency with which Pennebaker turns the camera around on the crowd. We are exposed not only to the spectacular music of the sixties, but to the people who loved it and who were changed by it. We see the rebellious spirits, the free love, and the lost souls of a generation of youths displaced by a world that they can not understand. D.A. Pennebaker takes us back and helps us to understand why the hippies were the way that they were and, in many ways, he turns us into hippies ourselves.