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50th Anniversary of ‘Monterey Pop’: Filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker on His Iconic Concert Film (INTERVIEW)

Fifty years ago this weekend, the Monterey International Pop Music Festival rocked the world, introducing a lineup of performers that included Janis Joplin, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Otis Redding, The Who and Ravi Shankar, among others. Filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker was there to capture their legendary performances and music history in the making.

D.A. “Penny” Pennebaker’s Monterey Pop (1968) is one of the first, and perhaps the most famous concert film ever made. It will open at the IFC Theater in New York City this week, in a new 4K restoration, on the 50th anniversary of the 1967 music festival. On a recent afternoon, Penny took time to reminisce with Biography.com about his iconic documentary, and the music and musicians he knew and loved. “My music is old blues, like Louis Armstrong,” he says in a phone interview in New York City, “and I still listen to that on my 78 records.” 

Penny’s appreciation of music is actually all-embracing—as a filmmaker, he had a knack for the capturing the musical zeitgeist. Monterey Pop was preceded by his documentary about Bob Dylan, Dont Look Back (1967; the title has no apostrophe). Rock n’ roll icon David Bowie was the subject of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1983). In Depeche Mode 101 (1989), co-directors Penny and Chris Hegedus took to the road with the synth pop band, all the way to the Rose Bowl for their famous “Concert for the Masses.” “It is my favorite film because we had a great time with that band,” he says, with a laugh. “While we were making the film, the band told Warner Bros., the distributors, that they were going to do a concert at the Rose Bowl, and Warner Bros. said ‘you can’t f***ing do that, and the band said ‘F*** you!’” 

Penny oversaw the 4K restoration of Monterey Pop, which allowed for extensive sound editing. The documentary is now in Dolby 5.1 (4 speakers, and .1 for bass). Suffused with color, it features performances by: Big Brother and the Holding Company and Janis Joplin; Booker T. and the MG’s with Otis Redding; Canned Heat; Country Joe and the Fish; Eric Burdon and The Animals; Jimi Hendrix; Hugh Masekela; The Mamas and the Papas; The Mar Keys; Ravi Shankar, and The Who

The highlights of Monterey Pop include Jim Hendrix’s “Wild Thing,” Janis Joplin’s “Ball and Chain,” and Otis Redding’s “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long.” The latter is one of the few live performances ever shot of the vocalist who died while Penny was editing the documentary. “He was the big hit of the festival,” he recalls. Redding’s rendition is also the most emotionally stirring and visually dramatic scene in the documentary. At times, the camera is behind Redding and facing the spotlight. As he moves, the spot flashes intermittently onscreen, obliterating the image of Redding’s profile or the back of his head and neck. In close-up, these are oddly intimate shots, that part of the body perhaps as unique as one’s face. The obliteration is as it must have appeared to Penny—a prefiguring of Redding’s untimely demise. 

Hendrix’s riveting rendition of “Wild Thing,” that can only be described as sex with a guitar, ends with him squirting lighter fluid on it and setting it afire. That scene cost Penny his lucrative ABC broadcast deal for Monterey Pop. Musing about it now, he says of Hendrix’s performance: “It’s something you’ll never hear by anybody else, anywhere else. You think: ‘I was there.’” That sentiment was Penny’s guiding principle in making the documentary. “When you go to a concert, you sit in a seat 100 yards away,” he says, “but you really want to be one foot away from the artist and that’s what we tried to do.” 

In 1967, Penny points out, few people outside of San Francisco had seen Janis put over a song. “But when you heard it, it was important to see her body shake, and her butt and her feet,” he says. “You could only get that with a light camera that was in close-up.” Janis’s rendition of “Ball and Chain” was no doubt her breakout performance. The vocalist holds a special place in Penny’s memories. “I am sure she would be writing something really wonderful if she were around now because she was so smart,” he says, “and I really loved her.” In a Writer’s Guild appearance two years ago, Penny opened by telling the audience that Janis had made it clear that she was attracted to him, but that he had politely refused to have sex with her.

The Monterey Pop Festival and its crowd of 200,000 marked the beginning of the Summer of Love, a group of counter-culture gatherings centered in Haight-Ashbury. While there are several artists in Monterey Pop who were not part of the West Coast rock scene, including The Who and trumpeter Hugh Masekela, the documentary takes place at the height of the hippie movement. Onstage lava lights and rock star antics, like those of Hendrix and The Animals, immerse the audience in that era, as does the crowd’s 1960s “look.” It is barefoot and long-haired, women’s mini-skirts and “granny dresses” (ankle-length) accessorized by bead necklaces, flowers and feathers. 

While Monterey Pop is squarely focused on the performers, each song filmed without interruption, Penny intercut audience reaction shots, most famously the “Wow!” Mama Cass mouths in response to Janis’s “Ball and Chain.” Longer, non-musical sequences consist of footage of concert-goers coming and going. They often contain close-ups of feet, as did shots of the artists; at the time, some critics speculated that Penny had a foot fetish. A close-up of Janice’s feet, encased in a pair of open-back shoes, flop as she jumps to the beat of the music, and in a similar shot, Ravi Shankar’s bare soles also mark time. While one of the cameramen (or Penny) may have had a foot fetish, feet are also a leitmotif in Monterey Pop, the distinctive pace of the concert goers a quotidian version of the rhythmic movement of the artists. An unmistakable air of sensuality in these and other close-ups of performers’ bodies keep us “there” and in the moment.

Penny hired six friends to shoot the film, among them cinematographers and documentary filmmakers Richard Leacock (The Children Were Watching, 1961) and Albert Maysles (with brother David, Gimme Shelter, 1970 and Grey Gardens, 1976). “We did not use Arriflexes,” Penny says, referring to the relatively new, light-weight cameras that freed cinematographers from tripods. “They were not synch cameras. There were no synch cameras yet. That’s why no one had made a concert film.” The history of synchronization of sound and image is a book-length discussion, but suffice it to say that absent time-codes or some other way to mark the image and the audio, it is nearly impossible to achieve a mix in which the two are “synched.” 

Brent Stern’s Jazz on a Summer’s Day (1960), of the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, preceded Monterey Pop by nearly 10 years, and is in every way its jazz equivalent, featuring Anita O’Day and Thelonious Monk, among half a dozen other artists. Stern’s documentary also included audience reactions, and in subtle ways chronicled racist attitudes in the audience, and segregation at the festival, with blacks arriving in separate transport and through separate entrances. During the shoot, five cameras were strategically placed in order to capture various angles. Four-track tape recorders were used for the audio; the recording, synching and the final mix were so difficult that music director George Avakian was given co-director’s credit. 

Penny duplicated Stern’s arrangement by identifying specific locations for the six cameras. Not wanting to hinder the cinematographers, and preferring the look of hand-held shots, he also told them to move around as they saw fit. Only Leacock, a pioneer in reducing the weight of movie cameras so that they could rest on a cinematographer’s shoulder, occasionally used a tripod. “They went anywhere they wanted to,” he says. “It was not possible for me to direct anyone, so I gave each cameraman 3 or 4 rolls of film in the morning and they brought it back exposed at night.” As for sound recording, six eight-track tape recorders, cued to each of the cameras, picked up music onstage. Another mike linked to an 8-track pointed toward the audience to pick up ambient sound and applause.

Penny, Leacock and Richard Drew (Primary, 1961) had, over the years, developed a system which outfitted the cameras and the recorders with the quartz crystals used in watches. The crystals emit a precise signal, producing the equivalent of a time-code so that audio and picture can be matched. A version of this groundbreaking system was used in Monterey Pop. In the documentary’s original release, Penny wanted to take full advantage of the sophisticated sound recordings in his final audio mix. “I went around to all the theaters where the film would be shown and none of them worked well, except for one place in Boston,” Penny says, referring to the theater’s sound systems. “Instead of 4-track, we mixed the original film with two-track, left and right, with occasional vocals in the middle. That worked quite well if you played it loudly enough!”

Asked what he is working on now, Penny replied: “I’m trying to remember all the things that happened to me. It’s like editing film. A sentence is like a shot; it has a beginning and a middle and then it has to go somewhere. It can’t be just information. It has to be a song. It has to build up to something, and then tell you something you don’t know.”