Films immortalize 3 amazing days in Monterey

Critics' picks: New DVDs

June 11, 2006|By CHRIS KALTENBACH

MONTEREY POP and JIMI PLAYS MONTEREY & SHAKE! OTIS AT MONTEREY -- Criterion -- $29.95 each

It's almost impossible not to shed a tear while watching Monterey Pop, D.A. Pennebaker's transcendent celebration of the 1967 Monterey International Pop Festival. The festival itself, spread over three northern California days, was the first and the truest manifestation of what would become known as the Summer of Love, and that alone can make watching the film an emotional experience - a recollection of lost innocence for those of a certain age.

If the spirit of the times alone doesn't get to you, then maybe the music will. For a show that was put together on the fly, within only a few weeks, the talent lineup it offered was amazing: The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Big Brother & the Holding Company with Janis Joplin, Otis Redding, the Mamas and the Papas, Jefferson Airplane, Simon & Garfunkel, The Who, Country Joe and the Fish, Eric Burdon and the Animals. Most were at the start of their careers, and almost every act contributed a performance that caught them at the height of their powers: young, energetic, charismatic, fearless. Hendrix setting his guitar on fire, The Who's Pete Townsend smashing his to bits; Keith Moon attacking his drums like some percussive version of Peck's Bad Boy; Janis Joplin singing "Ball & Chain" with an emotive power that's almost palpable, then merrily skipping offstage, clearly pleased with her performance.

Then there's the movie itself: a music documentary that's still among the best ever made. Pennebaker films Redding with a camera pointed straight at the spotlights, thus providing the premier soul singer of his generation with an ethereal glow. He trains his camera lovingly on the Airplane's Grace Slick, even when it's only Marty Balin's voice on the soundtrack. Pennebaker infuses Monterey Pop with both an affection and respect for the musicians, as well as for the beautiful music they were creating.

And if all that isn't enough to tug at the emotions, think of all the talent captured here on film that would be leaving us far too soon. Within three years of the film's 1968 release, both Janis and Jimi would be dead, of drug overdoses. Otis had died even earlier, killed in a plane crash less than six months after the festival.

Monterey Pop offers, at most, two numbers from each of the performers; as Pennebaker explains on the accompanying commentary track, he was trying to save film by not shooting everything. The Grateful Dead, he notes, started their set with a song that lasted more than 10 minutes, requiring more film than they could load into a camera at one time - which explains why they don't appear in the film.

Fortunately, Pennebaker abandoned that sense of restraint when Hendrix and Redding took the stage, so unbelievably powerful and (at least in Hendrix's case) revolutionary were their performances. Released separated from Monterey Pop, Jimi Plays Monterey & Shake! Otis at Monterey captures more of their sets, with Otis exhorting the crowd through "Respect," "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" and "Try a Little Tenderness," while Jimi continues to perplex and bedevil his unsuspecting audience (Monterey marked his American debut as a headliner) with "Purple Haze," "Foxy Lady," "Hey Joe," "The Wind Cries Mary," even The Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band."

Special features

Monterey Pop includes a commentary track from Pennebaker and festival co-producer Lou Adler, along with a separate video interview with the pair. The late John Phillips, founder of the Mamas and the Papas and the man who thought of the festival in the first place, is featured in an audio interview. Jimi Plays Monterey features a commentary track by music critic Charles Shaar Murray, while Shake! Otis at Monterey includes commentary from music critic Peter Guralnick and an interview with Hendrix's former manager, Phil Walden.

Hard-core fans may want to seek out an earlier Criterion release, The Complete Monterey Pop Festival ($79.95), which includes both discs, plus another two hours of performances from the festival.

ALSO ANTICIPATED

VALLEY OF THE DOLLS and BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS -- 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment -- $26.95 each

Dolls, for those not-yet-initiated into the finer points of Hollywood camp, are pills, downers, the bad stuff. Valley of the Dolls, based on Jacqueline Susann's infamous screed against the excesses of the Hollywood star-making machine, flails away with an awful deliciousness, a no-holds-barred cautionary tale that, even 39 years ago, was more hooted at than taken to heart. Barbara Parkins, Patty Duke and Sharon Tate are the three "headstrong, career-driven gals" determined to succeed, regardless of how much they're forced to over-emote. It's hard to pick out a single awful moment from this cornucopia, but watching the once-respectable Susan Hayward act like an angry, vengeful diva is certainly a singular experience.

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls abandons any pretense of respectability, in favor of a level of raunchiness and exploitation that's still potent enough to earn the 1970 film an NC-17 rating. Directed by sleaze pioneer Russ Meyer, from a screenplay by nascent film critic Roger Ebert, who has never expressed a scintilla of regret for his association with the film.

CHRIS KALTENBACH

chris.kaltenbach@baltsun.com

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