Review - The Complete Monterey Pop Festival

Artist: Hippy hole

The unyielding cultural choke hold of the baby boomers has been a force to contend with ever since that generation started making money on junk bonds. From the fuzzy nostalgia of "The Big Chill" to the beatification of sub-par talents like Jefferson Airplane, there has been a constant modulation of history that has decreed thusly: If you weren't born between 1947 and 1952, your popular culture is of substantially less value than of those who were. If you aren't of "a certain age," your politics are meaningless (you didn't stop a war, kid), your counterculture is flaccid (you didn't discover LSD, kid), your rebellion is recycled (everything now is so commodified, kid) and, most notably, your music is worthless.

All of which, of course, is bullshit. Sure, the boomers helped turn the disposable kid-culture of the '50s into a socio-economic juggernaut called "youth culture" in the '60s. And sure, that juggernaut is still plowing its way through the landscape today. But the continued snobbery of the 50-somethings has moved beyond being ridiculous to simply being offensive. Yet it's that generation that still controls the corporate purse strings, so it's that generation that still gets to pretend that their youth is better than your youth.

It's that mindset that yields such behemoths as "The Complete Monterey Pop Festival," a three-DVD set by Criterion that collates pretty much all the footage D.A. Pennebaker shot at the legendary rock festival in 1967. Truly, the myth of Monterey is well established. It was the "Summer of Love." It was two years before Woodstock. It was the U.S. jumping-off point for Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and The Who. It was the mass genesis of pretty much the entire '60s counterculture. It's been written about, its music has been released and re-released (Rhino's doorstop-sized four-CD box pretty much did all that needed to be done) and, like any legendary show, the number of people who say they were there exceeds the number of people who were actually there by about a factor of 10.

And somehow, the fact remains that the Monterey Pop Festival was truly an amazing event. And this DVD set -- more so than any solely musical document -- makes the case abundantly clear. Director Pennebaker managed with "Monterey Pop" to deftly capture the formative fires onstage, chronicling a shift in musical dynamics from the folksy pop of "then" to the acid-bathed electricity of "now." Looking at the film now (masterfully restored here, with beefed-up 5.1 surround sound), it's pretty easy to understand why it seemed so important at the time.

Ultimately, it's easy to understand -- when viewing the other two discs of this set -- what was really going on that weekend. Pennebaker shot some amazing footage of some amazing acts and, unfortunately, most of it was left out of the main cut of "Monterey Pop." Though the sets by Big Brother & The Holding Company and Hendrix are justifiably legendary, the additional footage included here is revelatory. Whether it's the hilariously provocative on-stage commentary by David Crosby (and a pre-emptive run through "Hey Joe" by the Byrds that must have bugged the crap out of Hendrix, who had yet to take the stage), some pre-Devo oddness from, of all groups, The Association, blisteringly effective sets by The Who and The Electric Flag, or a four-song effort by Tiny Tim, it's these performances that give a much more complete picture than what John Phillips probably would have preferred.

As it stands, the main film posits Phillips' group -- the haplessly square Mamas and the Papas -- as the axis of the event. To some degree, given both Phillips' organizing and the massive popularity of the Mamas and the Papas, that may have been true. And the lineup -- heavy on folk-pop like Simon and Garfunkel, Laura Nyro and others -- is highly reflective of the AM sensibilities of the time. But when viewing the outtakes, it's clear the shift in taste that was occurring on that very day.

Yet, the main film also unintentionally captures the reality of the "counterculture" in 1967. On Pennebaker's telling audience shots, you don't see a crowd of radical hippies. You don't see a lot of fringed jackets. You don't see raised fists, paisley parkas or dope smoke. You see your parents. The regular-looking folks dressed in JC Penney's finest, simply digging the music. It's not a revolution you see. It's a concert. And to those in attendance, it wasn't cultural upheaval they were after. It was a good time. To watch the crowd, you realize that the casting of this event as the watershed event of the youth revolution is sheer hyperbole.

Two years later, Woodstock would push that hyperbole to greater heights. At that point, the culture had become far more polarized, putting young Americans at distinct odds with the ideas of their parents. Rock festivals had become less about music than about money. JC Penney had started stocking flares and paisley. And the cultural choke hold had begun. But on this foggy June weekend, the vision of rock utopia held by the participants might have seemed possible. Too bad it wasn't.


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