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Thursday, February 20, 2014

MONTEREY POP Review: Stranger Than Fiction Docs

The crew of MONTEREY POP
Photo by Joshua Handler
1968, 79 minutes
Not Rated

Review by Joshua Handler

D.A. Pennebaker's cinéma vérité documentary Monterey Pop showed as part of thr Stranger Than Fiction Documentary Series at IFC Center with Pennebaker and much of the crew in attendance for a post-screening Q&A.  The film itself is an unforgettable experience to watch.  Shot in 1967 during the Monterey Pop Festival on 16mm film, Monterey Pop is a sometimes electrifying, always entertaining time capsule that features performances by Janis Joplin, Ravi Shankar, Jimi Hendrix, The Who, Simon and Garfunkel, Otis Redding, Jefferson Airplane, and many others.  The extended Ravi Shankar sequence that closes out the film is nothing short of one of the most astonishing musical sequences I've ever seen on film.  Pennebaker's crew films hands on the sitar and the tabla in close-up showcasing their incredibly fast movements.  When the film cuts to an extended shot of Shankar's feet moving to the beat of his music, they look otherworldly, as do the hands on the tabla.  The otherworldly way in which the hands move make something so ordinary look alien.  Because the sequence is so long, Pennebaker said that he let scenes of the audience applauding run long in order to "come down" from Shankar.

Janis Joplin's sequence is equally mind-blowing.  In films like Pop, these celebrated (and in many cases, dead) performers come back to life.  We feel as if we are there with the camera crew watching this historical event.  It doesn't need to be restated that Joplin's talent was out the roof.  Jimi Hendrix's insane sequence is also one of the more noteworthy.  At the end of it, he sets his guitar on fire.

What's so wonderful about Monterey Pop is that it feels intimate, like a bunch of extremely well-made home videos strung together by a master editor to create an immersive musical experience.  As mentioned, director D.A. Pennebaker and cinematographer Albert Maysles (the legendary documentarian who directed Gimme Shelter and Grey Gardens), along with much of the crew were on hand for a Q&A.

At the time that Pennebaker was asked to make Monterey Pop, he said he didn't know much about music, but after seeing The Endless Summer, he decided that California looked appealing so he and a crew went out to shoot a documentary on the Monterey Pop Festival with homemade cameras.  Many crew members never went to film school and had no experience making films.  They shot based on gut reactions.  As Pennebaker said, "People shot whatever the fuck they wanted to."

In a cut of the film, there was a sequence of Electric Flag playing.  Truman Capote saw the sequence and called it "tacky."  "What do you know about tacky?" asked Pennebaker.  Pennebaker took out the sequence.  He doesn't know why it didn't feel right (he liked the sequence itself), but he never put it back in.

Finally, a fun fact.  Pennebaker said that they were talking about submitting Monterey Pop for "the Oscar".  When he found out it'd be for Best Documentary, he pulled it so that it wouldn't be considered.  Why?  Because at that time, no one wanted documentaries and no one wanted to show them.

Overall, Monterey Pop is a highly enjoyable and very important film.  It also made way for bigger, more ambitious concert films like Woodstock and Gimme Shelter.  Looking at Monterey Pop now is fascinating because it is like peering through a window in time.  At the same time, many sequences made me feel as if I was at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival.  This is a great film that features classic music, energetic musical performances, and some incredible editing and is highly recommended to all music and doc lovers.


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