Rob Sheffield: Pennebaker, ‘Monterey Pop’ and the ‘Wow’ That Changed the World
D.A. Pennebaker, the master documentary filmmaker who just passed away at the age of 94, specialized in capturing rock & roll moments on film before they slipped away, from Bob Dylan in Dont Look Back to Depeche Mode in Depeche Mode 101. But if there’s one scene that sums up his legendary career, it’s this perfect moment from Monterey Pop — Mama Cass saying “wow” after seeing Janis Joplin sing “Ball and Chain.”
It’s 1967, the Summer of Love, the Monterey Pop Festival. The flower children have gathered in the California sun to crown their new heroes: Jimi Hendrix, Otis Redding, The Who. Plus a hippie girl named Janis, who nobody ever heard of last week. She and her band, Big Brother and the Holding Company, realize it’s their make-or-break chance. In the crowd, you can spot Cass Elliott — there she is at the 3:39 point in this clip, marveling at Janis for the first time, her jaw dropping in awe. The Mamas and the Papas singer is one of the most famous stars here, looking fab in her shades and turquoise jewelry, but she’s blown away like everyone else, just another fan in a sea of faces. When Janis belts the big climax, at 5:25, Cass shakes her head and mouths the word “Wow.” A pause, then another “wow.”
This moment blew my mind when I saw it on TV as a little kid. It might be the first film footage of a female rock star admiring another one. Cass’ enthusiasm speaks as powerfully as Janis’ performance. Her open appreciation. Her sheer joy. Her generous-hearted kvelling. Her pure slack-jaw fandom. She’s headlining the festival with the Mamas and the Papas in just a few hours — Mama Cass is supposed to be the prima donna here. But she isn’t just welcoming Janis to the tribe. She’s also looking at the hippie singer and recognizing a piece of her own heart. You can tell they both feel “seen” (as the kids say) in a way they didn’t an hour ago.
Janis is nervous — anyone can see it. She already did Big Mama Thornton’s “Ball and Chain” yesterday, but it didn’t get filmed, so the band stages a do-over for the cameras. She knows it’s a big deal and she’s new to this rodeo. Just a couple of years ago, she was stuck in her high-school hellhole in Port Arthur, Texas, a girl made to feel ugly and dumb and despised by the whole town. Now here she is onstage, all eyes on her. She isn’t making nice or acting pretty — she’s screaming “it ain’t fair” and telling the truth, her voice full of rage. (“Honey it ain’t faaaair, baby it ain’t faaaaair, it ain’t fair what you doooo, no no no!”) But when it’s over, she pushes the hair out of her eyes and hops off the stage, looking like a little kid. She knows she did right by the song. She knows she put herself out there into the world. The tiny girlish hop is just heartbreaking.
Janis couldn’t see Cass’ “wow,” just as Cass couldn’t see her hop. But the moments are deeply connected. Just a couple of private emotional gestures that would have been lost in time forever without Pennebaker. Just two women sharing a long-distance moment where they feel less alone. He had the eye to notice details like that, and the heart to get why they mattered.
Monterey Pop is the most beautiful of rock documentaries, just as Don’t Look Back might be the meanest — because Pennebaker makes it a love song to the emerging rock & roll audience. The performers blend in with the fans. Hey, look! There’s Brian Jones hanging out. There’s Micky Dolenz, grooving to Ravi Shankar in his dashiki. There’s Jimi Hendrix. Virtually all of these folks are very high, needless to say, but their enthusiasm is real. (Loads of people get this high without any of this communal spirit — just fast-forward a couple of years to Gimme Shelter.)
There was plenty of drama behind the scenes. The San Francisco freaks clashed with the L.A. music-biz types; David Crosby clashed with everybody. The Grateful Dead refused to go on camera, man. Other artists complained that the movie made the Mamas and the Papas look too good, according to a Rolling Stone report awesomely headlined “Monterey Film Bummer.” The article claims that “Otis Redding is very poorly filmed,” proof that hot takes were already sizzling in 1968. But that spirit is there when Country Joe and the Fish play the psychedelic guitar instrumental “Section 43,” rousing the kids to greet the new dawn. This could be the scene Robert Plant pictures in “Going to California” when he sings “Children of the sun begin to wake.”
Pennebaker’s docs are full of intimacies like this. Bob Dylan and John Lennon wasted in the back of a limo, in Eat the Document, on his 1966 U.K. tour. David Bowie killing off Ziggy onstage at the end of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. Bill Clinton cruising to the White House in The War Room. Depeche Mode’s Martin Gore and Dave Gahan playing pinball half-naked in 101, singing along with Roxy Music’s “Love Is The Drug.”
Monterey Pop is full of faces you never forget. Jimi’s mischievous grin. Al Jackson Jr.’s intense concentration behind the drums. The eye contact between Ravi Shankar and Alla Rakha. John Phillips’ insistence on wearing that doofy winter hat everywhere. The Croz purring “groovy” when they test the sound system. And the hippie who blows bubbles in her wrap-around shades during the opening “San Francisco (Be Sure To Wear Flowers in Your Hair)” sequence. So many dazed and anonymous faces flicker through this movie, all of them looking forward to a brighter tomorrow that (spoiler) didn’t quite arrive the way anyone hoped.
But the radar love Mama Cass sends out to Janis is the loveliest moment. A wow that resonates through history. A wow that sums up the best — and perpetually betrayed— promises of both America and its music. A wow that lives on forever in rock & roll legend. And it exists because Pennebaker noticed it and caught hold of it. Thanks, D.A. — and wow.