'It felt like a wonderful dream' – DA Pennebaker on making Monterey Pop

In a final, previously unpublished Guardian interview, the late great documentarian looks back at his groundbreaking film with Lou Adler, the legendary music festival’s promoter

Lou Adler, promoter and producer

In 1967, there was a meeting at Mama Cass’s house that included Paul McCartney. The general conversation was: “Why isn’t rock’n’roll considered an art form in the way that jazz and folk are?” A few weeks later, the promoters Alan Pariser and Ben Shapiro got in touch to book the Mamas and the Papas for one night at Monterey County Fairgrounds in California. We said we’d think about it. About three o’clock in the morning, I got a call from John Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas. He said: “Why don’t we do a festival, add more days, and get the acts to play for nothing?” This was a chance to elevate how rock’n’roll was thought of.

We had six weeks. Chip Monck had to build the stage, put in all the lights and sound, and get 35 acts on and off. That had never happened before. We wanted to show all the genres of rock’n’roll: the blues people, the San Francisco groups, the bands from England. We wanted the Stones but they couldn’t get into the US. The Beach Boys backed out. We tried for all the Motown acts but I don’t know if [label founder] Berry Gordy understood what we were doing. You had to really buy into it if your acts weren’t going to get paid.

‘Not on my network’ … Hendrix on stage at the festival in June 1967.
‘Not on my network’ … Hendrix on stage at the festival in June 1967. Photograph: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

It was pretty phenomenal. Otis Redding was beyond anything I had ever seen. That was the largest white crowd he had ever performed for. And Hendrix, of course. A couple of girls in the movie of the festival look as if they could be watching a horror film – they don’t know what they’re seeing.

It was maybe the last time you would see so many performers in the audience. Most of these acts had heard about the other bperformers but had never seen them so they were as curious as anybody. Look at Mama Cass’s face during Janis Joplin. They were fans. Woodstock was about the weather and the number of people – Monterey was about the music. That’s the difference.

John and I made a deal with ABC to do a movie for TV. We asked DA Pennebaker because of [his Bob Dylan tour documentary] Don’t Look Back. He really understood the music and the personalities. Once we looked at the footage, Pennebaker said: “This is not a television show. This is a movie.” We went to see Tom Moore, head of ABC and a very conservative southern gentleman, and showed him Hendrix [humping] his amp. He said: “Not on my network.”

‘Woodstock was about the weather and the number of people – Monterey was about the music’ … Cass Elliot of The Mamas and the Papas in the audience.
‘Woodstock was about the weather and the number of people – Monterey was about the music’ … Cass Elliot of The Mamas and the Papas in the audience. Photograph: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

But we knew exactly what we were doing. With the advent of FM radio, Rolling Stone magazine and the festival, rock’n’roll was truly elevated. Promoters realised they could do festivals, which eventually led to Coachella. It’s unfortunate how many people who performed at Monterey are no longer with us, but they’re with us because of Pennebaker. I’d say we wouldn’t be talking about Monterey today without the movie. I play it at universities and when Hendrix and Otis and Joplin finish, I hear applause. These people are there.

DA Pennebaker, film director

John Phillips asked me if I’d be interested in doing a film of a music festival in California. I was still under the influence of The Endless Summer, Bruce Brown’s film about surfers. California was where everyone wanted to go when they graduated from school or college. Generally, people from Los Angeles and people from San Francisco had conflicting musical tastes and were sort of antagonistic. Monterey was a way of joining California where it hadn’t been joined before. What made it successful was the decision to throw the big-money ideas out of the window. People really came to play and hear each other play. They weren’t there to make a lot of money.

Watch a trailer for Monterey Pop

I made Don’t Look Back by myself but Monterey Pop was made by the people who worked with me, such as Albert Maysles. I didn’t direct it really. I edited it and made a storyline out of it but they all saw it differently and filmed it how they saw it. They were all people who had come to work with us to find out how to make these kind of films. They were not made the way commercial films were. You went out and found something or somebody and you filmed it the way you wanted. They were learning right there in front of me.

We only had a limited amount of film so we thought we’d have to decide on a particular song for each group, but in fact people shot anything that interested them. So we had to go down to Los Angeles twice to get more stock. I hesitated to say: “Don’t do it.” The music was so incredible: I wanted to shoot everything that happened. I liked the idea of watching music expand its possibilities as it went along. The movie started off with Canned Heat doing a simple country song, and ended with Ravi Shankar playing really complicated music.

Out of film again … DA Pennebaker in action.
Out of film again … DA Pennebaker in action. Photograph: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy

Music was moving so fast and nobody understood what was coming next. I grew up in Chicago during the 1930s when jazz was new. At Monterey I could see that the music of my youth was no longer big. I think for TV audiences who were used to a certain kind of music, somebody like Hendrix was too much.

We came back to New York with so much footage that we had to get people in to help. We went three or four days straight, 24 hours a day, screening all the rushes, and everybody came to see them, including Ravi Shankar. I dozed and woke up and dozed and woke up so when I sat down to edit it, it felt like a wonderful dream.

People used to sell documentaries by having someone like Henry Fonda doing a narration: it was like having a celebrity watching over the film. We were trying to get away from that. I saw this as a kind of film-making where you found people who were responsible for doing something, and you watched them do it, from the beginning if you could. That kind of film led me to The War Room [about Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign]. We didn’t need a script. We just had a sense of what was going to happen and we followed it.

The Complete Monterey Pop Festival is out now on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection.


Interviews by Dorian Lynskey

The GuardianTramp

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