Ruthlessly cut down to only 80 minutes of a three day festival, DA Pennebaker’s seminal concert film captures in celluloid the moment in 1967 when a whole generation was about to lose its mind, but with a killer soundtrack. As the festival sits in the transition between festivals of the past and the rapidly approaching future (it was the first major rock festival, modeled after various Jazz and Folk fests), so the film has one foot in the past and one in the future. In the rhythm of cutting between performers and audience, interstitial shots of people (with an especial focus on beautiful women, with whom this camera crew seem particularly obsessed) and the festival environment, it’s essentially Jazz on a Summer’s Day, the 1960 concert film of the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival. But at times it breaks into something far stranger, as in the cameraman who stares directly into a light during Otis Redding’s set, the silhouette of the star only occasionally breaking up the blinding whiteness, or in the particularly cruel cut from Canned Heat’s blistering “Rollin’ and Tumblin'” to Simon & Garfunkel’s simple syrup “The 59th Street Bridge Song”. It’s a culture on the edge, one which would reach it’s apotheosis in Woodstock and begin its rapid decline just a few months later with Gimme Shelter (whose co-director, Albert Maysles, served as a camera operator on Monterey Pop).
Most of the bands get only a single track in the film, and some big names are cut out entirely (including, famously, the Grateful Dead, who objected to the commercialism of the project). It’s a particular shame that we only get to see the incandescent finale of Jimi Hendrix’s brilliant set (you see watch most of it, his introduction to American audiences, in Pennebaker’s 1986 film Jimi Plays Monterey). Pennebaker’s decision to devote almost a quarter of the film’s runtime to Ravi Shankar is some kind of perverse genius. But with apologies to Hendrix and Shankar, the MVP of the film is Janis Joplin, without a doubt. Her performance of “Ball and Chain” is the reason we have music.