A FESTIVAL OF FIRSTS: MONTEREY POP (1968), directed by D.A. Pennebaker—The 45th Anniversary of the Monterey International Pop Music Festival

Michael van den Bos | June 2012

“Haven’t you ever been to a love-in?” asks a California sun-kissed blonde teenage girl at the beginning of one of the most important rock concert films ever made, Monterey Pop (1968).  “I think it’s going to be like Easter and Christmas and New Year’s and your birthday all together…hearing all the different bands…the vibrations are just going to be flowing everywhere!” Her sweet, good-natured excitement sums up the good vibrations and California-dreamy mood of the Monterey International Pop Music Festival, held June 16 to 18, 1967, during those halcyon hippie days known as the Summer of Love.

Directed by D.A. Pennebaker (who made the seminal 1967 Bob Dylan documentary Don’t Look Back ) with the help of a cadre of cameramen, Monterey Pop is one of the first major rock concert films and one that perfectly captures the spirit of the era, as stated in the festival’s slogan: ‘Music, Love and Flowers.’ The film is a stunning record of the state of rock music in the mid-’60s and of the talent who would blaze new electrified musical trails into the next decade.

Shot in Pennebaker’s Direct Cinema style, Monterey Pop eschews interviews by focusing on the musicians in performance, juxtaposed with images of the audience experiencing the music and living a weekend of communal bliss. Though the festival consisted of 32 musical acts during its weekend run, only 12 made the final cut of the film. Some of the more established musicians featured in Monterey Pop include troubadours Simon & Garfunkel (“The 59th Street Bridge Song”), the blues-boogie band Canned Heat (“Rollin’ and Tumblin’”), the psychedelic Jefferson Airplane (“High Flyin’ Bird” and “Today”) and the haunting harmonies of The Mamas and the Papas (“California Dreamin” and “Got a Feelin’”). It was Papa John Phillips—along with music impresario Lou Adler—who organized the festival and produced the film.

Monterey Pop is essential rock music history because it documents important and revolutionary musicians exploding on the pop culture scene. It introduced Ravi Shankar’s energetic Indian sitar picking to western audiences and Otis Redding’s black soul-styling to a predominantly white audience. Eric Burdon & The Animals and their fellow Brits The Who— performing for their first American audience—represented the British Invasion. Savagely tearing into their proto-punk anthem, “My Generation”, The Who rages with the furious sound of rock to come, culminating in Pete Townshend smashing his guitar to bits.

Monterey Pop features the first major American public performances of Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix.  Janis belts out “Ball ‘n’ Chain”, mesmerizing the audience with her brand of ballsy blues. Hendrix shocks the audience with his stratospheric version of “Wild Thing”.  Playing the Stratocaster as if having sex with it, his amplified guitar moans and screaming feedback overwhelm the audience. Hendrix climaxes his performance by squirting lighter fluid on his guitar, setting it aflame and smashing it to smithereens—it’s a pure rock moment that remains provocative 45 years after this landmark music festival.