The 1969 Woodstock festival may be viewed as an ephemeral triumph of hippie idealism, but, as this wonderful documentary by D.A. Pennebaker shows, the Monterey International Pop Festival of 1967 was a far more significant musical event than Woodstock. Organized by the Mammas and the Papa’s John Phillips, Lou Adler, and Beatles publicist Derek Taylor, the festival was conceived as a way to raise money for organizations like the L.A. Free Clinic by presenting a cross-section of British and American pop.
The range of talent here is indeed diverse, so much so that some of the acts seem out of place: Simon and Garfunkel, as good as they were, look geeky beyond belief in their groovy turtle necks and medallions, and Country Joe and the Fish come off as psychedelic muzak. Nonetheless, the best acts here are a reminder of why the ’60s are a key decade for pop music. There are fine performances by Jefferson Airplane (with Grace Slick playing an electric harpsichord on the lovely “Today”), Janis Joplin singing Big Mama Thorton’s “Ball and Chain” like her life depended on it, and a stark, electric violin-driven version of the Stones’ “Paint It Black” by Eric Burdon and the Animals. Other highlights include a wonderful, though too short, performance by jazz trumpeter Hugh Masekela and an incredible, stirring number by Otis Redding, backed by Booker T. and the M.G.’s .
There are also performances that have made it into pop culture lore: The Who, looking uncomfortable in their ruffled shirts and Indian collars, blast through a primal “My Generation.” Keith Moon – arguably the finest drummer in the annals of pop music – propels the band like a locomotive and Pete Townshend smashes his Stratocaster like a possessed maniac, pre-figuring punk by ten years. Jimi Hendrix, like some otherworldly messianic entity, plays the Troggs’ “Wild Thing” with apocalyptic bursts of H-bomb guitar, playing it behind his back, quoting “Strangers in the Night” and humping his Marshall amps before burning his Strat in a bizarre, destructive ritual that leaves the audience in stunned disbelief.
But perhaps the true highlight here is the last 15 or 20 minutes of the film, a mesmerizing performance by Sitar player Ravi Shankar. It’s a 20-minute sequence that records a pure expression of musical joy, a raga that builds to a climax of near orgasmic intensity before a rapt audience. It may be a hoary hippie cliché that the ’60s were about peace and love, but when you see it manifested so palpably in Shankar’s music, it’s hard not to feel nostalgia for a time when such virtues were blissfully unencumbered by cynicism.