“It’s sort of strange,” D.A. Pennebaker said in 2017, about restoring Monterey Pop, his document of the Summer of Love’s most famous music festival. “Seeing my films in later years is like seeing your children and they have beards. You weren’t ready for that.”
In 1967, Pennebaker, or “Penny” as people called him, was in his early forties and had established himself as a leading documentary filmmaker. That year, he released Dont Look Back, a picture he’d made a couple of years earlier about Bob Dylan, establishing him as a rare middle-aged man who not only understood rock & roll but could present it on film in a way that didn’t condescend to it. So to the organizers of the Monterey International Pop Festival — the Mamas and the Papas mastermind John Phillips, record producer Lou Adler, and publicist Derek Taylor — Penny seemed like the perfect person to capture what would become the first major music festival.
Over the course of three days that June, the Monterey County Fairgrounds hosted career-making performances by Ravi Shankar, the Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, and many others. Jimi Hendrix set his guitar on fire, the Who’s Pete Townshend smashed his instrument, Otis Redding taught rock-loving hippies that it’s OK to have soul, and Janis Joplin delivered a jaw-dropping performance with Big Brother and the Holding Company that made the Mamas and the Papas’ Mama Cass simply say “wow.” “I often think, how amazing it was that we were there, and we didn’t fuck up and we ended up with not just a fantastic film but an incredible collection of performances,” Penny said.
The filmmaker spoke in 2017 with Rolling Stone about the 50th anniversary of the Monterey Pop Festival, which was set to be commemorated with a tribute concert that summer. The question at hand for the interview was, “Can the Monterey Pop Revival Capture the Spirit of ’67?”, but the conversation turned into a lengthy, wide-ranging discussion about a cultural turning point that Penny had just seemed to stumble on. Because of the nature of the article, much of the interview didn’t make the cut. So in honor of the filmmaker, who died at the age of 94 on Thursday in his Sag Harbor, New York home, Rolling Stone is presenting here an extended cut of the interview.
During the talk, he was humble (“Have a nice lifetime,” he said at the end of the call, “I’m in the middle of writing myself, so I know what you’re going through”) and he acknowledged the long road it took for the film to be recognized as a masterpiece of cinema verité. At the time of its release, it got a showing at the Venice Film Festival and was selected for inclusion in the National Film Registry in 2018. In between those achievements, Penny made films about Little Richard, David Bowie, John Lennon, Depeche Mode, Bill Clinton, and many others. But it was on Monterey Pop that he radicalized the way music films would be shot in the decades that followed, with tight close-ups and quick cuts.
“I wanted [Monterey Pop] to have that feeling of freedom that you get when you get a lot of really good musicians or good anybodys and let them do what they do well,” he said. “You get a wonderful feeling of freedom that anything could happen and will be good. That’s what I wanted, that feeling. So I just let it happen.”
When he looked back on the era of psychedelia and free love half a century later, it was still with an awe that he got to be a witness to it. “It’s a world that I really didn’t know that well,” he said. “To know that world and the people in it, you have to go out in the gigs. You have to be there, riding shotgun to the concert. And I didn’t do that. But I did just film the people.”
Did you know any of the artists who played Monterey before the festival?
I knew some of them but not very well. I had met Otis at the [Whiskey] Go-Go in L.A., and that was the first time I’d actually seen him with that incredible band. I was really impressed. I hoped he was going to be at the festival. And then he told his management that he was gonna do it, and they didn’t want him to do it. It was kind of brave on his part, ’cause he was the only black person [playing that kind of music] there.
You can see in the film how he just won over the place immediately.
His performance, for me, was the act of the whole performance. There were other ones that were good, too. I never knew Ravi Shankar, but I got to meet him. He came to watch the rushes when we were showing them in New York. He brought a whole little band there, and they sat on the floor and we just ran it and he played right along with it. They loved it.
What strikes when you watch Monterey Pop now?
There were people in it that I really got to like later, like Janis, Hendrix, and even Otis, who I got to know later. It’s kind of like seeing people I really liked and wanted to see more of, and then they’re gone and that’s what I have. So I look at it and try to squeeze something out of it beyond just the music.
You want the connection.
Yeah, sort of. I mean, Hendrix, he was such a gentle person and even helped me take sound on a couple of things I was shooting, so I got to know him pretty well. And Janis, if she was still around — she was really smart — I think she’d be writing now or doing something beyond just singing. Once she did that performance, that was something. It really got people.
Were you familiar with Janis Joplin before the film?
No. The first time I saw her was when she came out for the first time and sang the song. We had been told we couldn’t film it because her agent wanted money or something. I did sneak a few shots, but then I went to [camera operator] Albert [Maysles], and I said, “Albert, we gotta have her in the film.” So he went out and broke somebody’s arm or something, and then she came running up to me and said, “I’m gonna do this set again and you can film it.” And I knew we were ahead of the game. From then on, it was gonna work.
Were you a rock & roll fan?
I got to be one when I started to hear really good music. But originally, I wasn’t. My music was recorded in the Twenties and Thirties. It was the old jazz, as I discovered it in Chicago. It was people like Bud Freeman and Eddie Condon, those people. Those were my music heroes. And they still are.
There really wasn’t a template for a film like Monterey Pop, or music festivals for that matter. How did you approach the film?
Before Monterey, there was no portable sync camera that you could carry around. I think the ones at Newport were a 35-millimeter and you had to be a football field away from the performer, so you got everything through a long lens.
[At Monterey] the music was terrific, but the idea of everybody coming to hear each other play music was what the festival was. It wasn’t like performances where afterwards the performers go home or go out and get drunk. They were all sitting and listening to each other because they want to know what’s going on. And in order to capture that, you have to have a camera that can go behind the scenes or get onstage — and I often did. Nobody noticed me. they were all looking at the performers. I was, like, a person handling the curtain or something in a show. So you could get close up to people, and that’s what you wanted to see. Suddenly, you could see everything, and that was a big change.
Those close-ups really made the film. How did you direct the cameramen?
Most of the crew, except for [Richard] Leacock who was an established cameraman, were people who were working with me. None of them were technically cameramen but they knew the music. They fell into the mood of the place and they got the shot they wanted to see, which was usually a close-up of a face. You watch the Ravi Shankar stuff, and Jim [Desmond] and Nick [Proferes], who were shooting that, they were right on top of them. nobody had ever filmed anybody like that. Ravi couldn’t believe it that we could that close with cameras. And we could get incredible details that make the music so much more interesting because it wasn’t distorted.
Did you take anything from your process of filming Bob Dylan for Dont Look Back into how you approached Monterey?
Only using the same camera, but I was doing that before myself. Now I was still working by myself, but I had five other people all working by themselves, so by the end of the day, they’d bring me their film and we would send it off to the lab. I had no idea really what the other people had done until we started looking at rushes in New York. We ran rushes for three days, day and night.
What inspired the way you made Dont Look Back with Bob Dylan?
I had been reading this book by Peter Quennell, an English writer. He had collected all the letters to and from Lord Byron. When you read Byron’s letters to different people, to women and his agents and people who were bothering him about something, he becomes such an interesting person. It’s not just because he could write poetry but because he could think things through in a way that most people didn’t. When he and Shelley got kicked out of England, all of the English intellectuals came down there to hang out. It was like San Francisco. That’s where the action was. I thought, if there was a guy with a movie camera there and made a film of it, we’d still be looking at that film. I thought, “That’s the kind of film I really want to make with Dylan.” I can’t command it to be around in 50, a hundred years, I just thought, “That’s the kind of film I would want to see if Dylan were like Byron, 50 years before me.” So I decided not to make a music film out of it, though I thought that’s what [producer] Albert [Grossman] wanted. But he didn’t care. He liked the film we made. In fact, everybody kind of let me do what I wanted. So that was OK.
I take it that wasn’t the case with Monterey. I assume you just wanted to capture and document it.
At the beginning, the fact is I don’t think anybody assessed my abilities to direct six cameramen. Had they done that, I wouldn’t have gotten the job. But they thought I had made one film and it worked, maybe I could make this one work. I just didn’t count on the fantastic things that would be handed to us, which was an extraordinary group of performers and four or five people who knew how to use those cameras. I like doing that. I like taking chances.
Why do you like filming musicians?
Anybody can’t be a musician. When a person decides to become a musician for whatever reason, he has some ability that’s in his DNA. When he turns it on, he becomes … it’s like a saint. He has this thing he believes in, and he’s willing to die for it. And most musicians are kind of like that. And I love that feeling. So when they’re on the stage singing, and it doesn’t have to be a huge concert crowd, they like it. They’re really taking it in. that’s such an amazing display of almost religious belief. I love filming that because there’s nothing else you can film with them that would be as telling. You could film them eating breakfast or giving out money to children in the street, and who cares? But when you can do that with music, you care. You really care.
Do you remember if Lou Adler or John Phillips asked for anything specific for the Monterey Pop film?
No. The fact is, they didn’t know much about making a film. Why would they? They knew if the liked what they saw. But the fact was that I had made a film that they had heard about [Dont Look Back]. It didn’t have a huge following then. It was still hard to get into theaters. But they knew about it from reviews. So they were a little shy about telling me what to do, thinking I knew what to do. But of course, I didn’t [laughs]. I was a little anxious when we went out because there was a lot of musicians doing it for free for Lou, other than Ravi Shankar — I think they had to pay him. I thought, “If we fuck up here, if we don’t make a good film about of it, a lot of musicians would be really upset.” I thought, we better be lucky here.
So what were you anxious about?
I had terrible anxiety about the cameras, because they were all homemade cameras. We made them ourselves. I was thinking, “One of them’s gonna break down.” They had half-hour magazines and we’d never run cameras with anything like that, so I had no idea whether they would work or not. We tried it and it seemed OK, but you never know. But all the cameras worked, to my great surprise.
Did you feel like you were witnessing a cultural turning point as the fest was going on?
No. You never do. You’re too busy either getting more film or arguing about not letting other people in with cameras. There’s so many things you’ve got to worry about.
But I remember I liked when I heard Hendrix. That was the first time I ever heard Hendrix. John had said, “There’s this guy coming. He’s a great blues player and he sets himself on fire.” I remember thinking, “Jesus, that doesn’t sound like blues playing as I understand it, but we’ll see what happens.” When he first started playing, I thought, “Jesus, it’s just noise. This isn’t music.” Then by the end of the set, I became a fan because what he had did was so amazing. He turned noise into music. I thought, “Shit, here’s a guy who can do that and that’s impossible, but he could do that.” And I never got over that.
Well, at least you managed to capture Jimi Hendrix’s iconic burning of his guitar.
I didn’t know he was gonna do that. I was as surprised as anybody else. But I got to know him and like him a lot. He was a very gentle and wonderful soul. We became friends.
It sounds like you got lucky a lot.
We were only supposed to shoot one song [with Jimi]. We had this red lightbulb on a stand, and when the lightbulb was turned on, that told the cameramen wherever they were that this we would be shooting. We were saving film; we would just get one take of the band. But some bands, like the Who or Jimi Hendrix or Otis, somebody shot everything. After a while, it was kind of a free for all, and that was good because what we got was more than just 10 songs in a row to put in a movie theater; we got a fantastic kind of remembrance of what people could do. And a lot of them didn’t survive it. A year later, they were gone.
Do you have favorite shots in the film? I always think of the way Micky Dolenz watches Ravi Shankar or the way Mama Cass mouths “wow” after watching Janis Joplin.
I shot [Ravi] at the very end. I could feel it, it was so exciting. I was kind of lifted off the ground myself a little bit. So that’s one. But Janis was the most interesting to shoot because I had not been prepared for her at all. She was [from] San Francisco, and I had been hanging out with the “L.A.’s.” There was this thing between them. They had to sniff each other out a little bit. There was a feeling that they weren’t really good friends. It was wonderful to watch them sit and watch each other play. When she first stood there and belted that thing out, I thought, “Jesus, this is incredible.” This is the music I was used to hearing from the big blues bands of the Twenties and Thirties. It gave me a feeling that this is an important thing to do. That’s why when I was told we couldn’t shoot her, I went to Albert and said, “Whoever’s in charge, you’ve gotta change their mind. ‘Cause we gotta have her in the film.” And she said, “I’m gonna do the set again, and you can film it.”
Do you remember the reaction from when you first showed Monterey Pop?
Yeah, it was at the Venice Film Festival, and they’re [usually] not too hospitable to Americans. They weren’t gonna show it in the theater, but the kids all wanted to see it because they all knew about Jimi Hendrix and the people in it. So they showed it outdoors, and it was a fantastic showing, and the kids went’ crazy. It was like they had never been allowed to see a film like this before. That is the feeling I got. They all just went nuts. But the elders, the parents, were just sitting inside drinking cocktails. It was a funny feeling that I was at the wrong festival. But they never forgot it. Whenever I went back, still remembered the Venice showing of Monterey. And that always makes me feel good. It was kind of wonderous.
What is the legacy of the film Monterey Pop?
I don’t know. I sort of wonder that to myself, because we had such a hard time getting people to see it. It wasn’t like we had television to expose us to a hundred million people. We got about three theaters that would play any of [my] films, and then, reluctantly so. So we didn’t have a huge audience. But it’s a different kind of audience.
It’s hard to explain, but I understood when I was making those films — both Dont Look Back and Monterey — that this was music for some kind of future, I don’t know, historical recognition. I don’t really fully understand it. It’s like listening to Billie Holiday. We will be listening to Billie Holiday for the next 50 years. And there’s 10 other singers who were pretty good singers that they’re not gonna be listening to. So you have a kind of historical ladder you have to climb, and that’s interesting. I can’t control it. I can’t make these films and say, “OK, in 50 years, play them again.” Nobody’s gonna listen to me.