These two music festivals, two years apart, capped an incredible musical decade and showcased young musicians pointing the world in a new direction. These events were the watermark on the music of the 1960s. Although two years apart, these films are quite different. One is about the music, the other is about the experience.
Monterey Pop (1967) was the brain child of music mogul Lou Adler and John Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas. This festival was held at the Monterey County Fairgrounds over three days and served as the springboard for other large musical happenings.
In attendance with lots of young people, but this was also a sophisticated crowd, including some celebs and music industry folks. This was also a place to be seen.
Monterey was already known for jazz and folk festivals. So, why not blend rock, jazz, folk and R&B together, inviting many of the biggest musical acts. The artists, with the exception of Ravi Shankar, were not paid, only provided travel and accommodations.
Watching the film of Monterey Pop, it has that laidback California vibe. Flowers, longhair and mellow. The crowd responded enthusiastically with applause, but seemed to listen intently and even looked stunned at Jimi Hendrix as he made love to his guitar and then set it ablaze before bashing it to pieces as the feedback howled. Stunned is an apt description of this audience, witnessing the most sexual, bold and unpretentious performance. No one was quite ready for that.
At the beginning of the film you get the mellow vibe of the attendees, as the Summer of Love gave off smiles and a feeling of peace. Producer Lou Alder is seen joking with police, who aren’t as concerned about hippies as they are about the Hell’s Angels and Black Panthers who might show up.
The performance venue at the fairgrounds had a capacity of 7,000 although it is noted that more showed up.
Best performances: Otis Redding, Big Brother and the Holding Company, The Who, the Mamas and the Papas, and Ravi Shankar. There were many performances not featured in the film, you didn’t get to see David Crosby taking Neil Young’s place in the Buffalo Springfield, and also playing with the Byrds.
The film omitted any political banter by the performers, it was just about the music and the hip vibe.
The film was directed by D. A. Pennebaker (Don’t Look Back, Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars).
The four-hour director’s film cut of Woodstock is an event in itself. The viewer gets a 25-minute overview of the event staging before Richie Havens takes the stage for his very long set. The camera is up close and personal with Havens who could get a lot of mileage from how he played his acoustic guitar, plus his versatile vocal ability. Havens was asked to keep playing because the next group had not arrived. Havens was up to the task.
Michael Wadleigh was hired to film Woodstock. Wadleigh lacked the filmmaking pedigree of Pennebaker, he was a medical school student who made a few films about human rights and ecology. He saw the political and environmental undertones present in the era’s music and the huge stage Woodstock would provide to this generation. Filing the music was only part of the story, it was the festival goers, the town people and the people who provided support like security, medical, food and even toilets. For three days it was a community.
His crew consisted of 100 people to film and record the shooting of what became 120 miles of exposed film. For his work, he saw very little of the film’s profit, and never tackled a project like Woodstock again, leaving the film industry all together.
The camera work for Woodstock is amazingly good. The picture and sound not only have survived, but the presentation is a quality film. The use of split screen to tell several stories at once is effectively used, since the event serves as an umbrella for experiences of the participants as well as the performers. Woodstock was more than a series of performances, it was a hugely influential cultural phenomenon.
There are many incredible performances in the film. The entire Jimi Hendrix set of five songs are breathtaking. “The Star Spangled Banner” is perhaps the best known from this set, but his loose, improvised “Woodstock Improvisation” and “Voodoo Chile” are watching a master work. His eyes are closed for most of the time, predominantly instrumental, his hands working the guitar fretboard in a way you have never seen. Lightening fast. This is a much different performance than Monterey Pop with the fire and destruction. Woodstock was a soulful blending of artist and audience.
Woodstock won the Academy Award for Best Documentary and was nominated for several others. On a $600,000 budget, the film grossed over $50 million in the U.S. at the time.
Best performances: Hendrix, Crosby, Stills & Nash, John Sebastian, Santana, Country Joe & the Fish, Canned Heat, Joe Cocker and Santana.