Boomer Audit: D.A. Pennebaker Invents the Music Festival in ‘Monterey Pop’

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When the “Boomer Audit” was scheduled as a theme week — absolutely fair as we’re hitting the 45th anniversary of Woodstock — I felt relatively skeptical about it, as I have been lucky enough to live a life devoid of boomer values infecting my everyday existence, at least when it comes to my immediate family. My parents were the Silent Generation, born between the World Wars. As a result, while my peers had parents who were ex-hippies, with books like How to Tell Your Kids No When You Said Yes on their bookshelves, well, my parents, slightly older than the other parents, had missed out on that culture as they were too busy raising children and surviving.

So I have no sacred cows to murder in response to the idea that “Bob Dylan was a prophet, man,” or any of the other hoary old saws your boomer dad is likely to unleash after he’s had too many beers. What is a Dylan? Is he like The Kingston Trio or The Clancy Brothers? No? I didn’t see Jimi at Woodstock, I didn’t really get it in its context, even though he was a hot dude with amazing guitar talent. For me, boomer culture was just more in the background of pop — the way that Forrest Gump‘s soundtrack was the 60s classic rock station in a nutshell, the way that The Mamas and the Papas’ “California Dreamin'” felt like a cliche until Wong Kar-Wai made it new in Chungking Express.

That means that it’s very easy to say that D.A. Pennebaker’s pioneering rock n’ roll concert film Monterey Pop (1968) is a very good movie. I have very little baggage around this stuff, beyond osmosis. It captured the Monterey Pop Festival of 1967, something that appeared to be the kickoff of the “Summer of Love” and one of the very first rock festivals, and as a document of an event, the film would go on be an influence on the Woodstock Festival organizers. As a document of some rock ‘n’ roll music, Pennebaker’s work — along with camera work from future legends like Albert Maysles — would go on to influence the look of music for the rest of eternity. In its way, it’s kind of like an original document for a state of what rock ‘n roll was like for a handful of bands — not all great, some legends — in 1967.

Lots of concert films can be boring, but Pennebaker creates a dynamic scene with the editing. There’s lots of close-ups and messing around with the quality of light on the stage. Highlights include Simon and Garfunkel, two red silhouettes in the murk of the stage, singing like angels. You can see the youthful baby faces of Janis Joplin and Grace Slick and the big, booming voices that come out of their mouths. Otis Redding is too-short perfection, almost captured accurately. (I mean, I saw D’Angelo play to a horde of 5,000 hysterical women standing on chairs in 2000 — it was indescribable. The energy could power a whole city. I imagine Otis Redding’s music in person had to reach those heights.) Jimi Hendrix plays “Wild Thing” and lights his guitar on fire. Even the bands that I don’t like are still dynamic and interesting.

On the other hand, there is some dated stuff in here. And hey, in Pennebaker’s hands there’s no editorializing, as it’s simply a record of the times. Vintage hippie footage, girls in flower crowns, young girls saying the cool thing about the concert will be that “It’s going to be a love-in… the vibrations are just going to be everywhere” and enthusing about the “sonic energy.” That is the sort of hippie nonsense that makes me feel like Cartman on South Park. You see shots of the kids at the show in line and blissed out with, ugh, Scott McKenzie’s “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)” playing over the soundtrack. Sure, you’ll meet some gentle people there, I guess. Hell’s Angels, too. Pennebaker presents the era without judgement, and, well, without context. And you do want some more context beyond the concert, a bit.

But overall? There’s some way worse boomer crap that I could’ve been forced to consume for this theme week. Even though I could take it or leave it with The Mamas and The Papas and the fact that they seem like a cult of people who sing flat, the performances and, well, vibes in Monterey Pop are an important document, showing the real vitality and energy behind the music that boomers have forced us to listen to as a shortcut for soulfulness for the past forty years. There were real, baby-faced people behind those songs. It’s funny to realize that they existed.