David Reviews The Complete Monterey Pop Festival [Criterion Collection Blu-Ray Review]

A new edition of The Complete Monterey Pop Festival should be regarded as a milestone event for the Criterion Collection. It marks the first occasion that a high-def (1080p) transfer of a film that Criterion holds the rights to distribute has been voluntarily retired and replaced with an even better (4K) upgrade. While there are probably more than a few other similar situations where older Criterion Blu-rays scanned in at 1080 have had subsequent 2K or 4K transfers done in recent years, the company’s general reluctance to re-issue those titles makes plenty of sense in today’s home video market. However, this particular enhancement of Monterey Pop, available as either a standalone film or as part of a more comprehensive package that includes two short films shot at the festival featuring Otis Redding and Jimi Hendrix, is easily justified by both the merits of the film itself, and the occasion of it being a 50th anniversary commemoration of sorts. The original Monterey International Pop Festival happened in June 1967, and the cinematic chronicle of the event, directed by legendary documentarian D.A. Pennebaker, was released the following year. So Criterion’s decision to split the difference by issuing the new version at the end of 2017 serves as a nod to both anniversaries, and gets it on the market just in time to make it a nice holiday gift to the aging hippies or younger aficionados of classic rock, soul and raga on your list.

But given that Criterion has been publishing versions of Monterey Pop going back to the laser disc era, it’s fair to assume that a lot of potential customers out there already own at least one of them. (I have the 2002 DVD and the 2009 Blu-ray box sets in my library, both of which saw plenty of replays over the years.) My purpose here is not to elaborate at length on the superb qualities of the title feature and supplements. If you want to read more of my thoughts on the main film, here’s a link to my review written as part of my 1968 blogging coverage on this site last year (or to be more concise: after rewatching it for the umpteenth time just now, for me, this is as delightful and stimulating and utterly life-affirming as a musically-focused documentary can get – I love it!) Another way of putting it is that, if this set had not been released by Criterion until just now, it would without hesitation be my favorite CC edition of the year. But since it’s been around so long, the freshness factor just doesn’t apply here. And while the upgrade, with some additional content, is gratefully received by me and I’m sure many other die-hard fans, I can understand some ambivalence for those not quite so enthusiastic about shelling out the cash yet again to get a slightly improved version.

So my objective here is mainly to help readers who already own one or more of the earlier editions to decide whether or not to make the double (or triple, or quadruple) dip, by rigorously comparing the differences between the new release and the versions I own, mentioned above. (LD owners, sorry, you’re on your own here, since I don’t have that material at my disposal… but I’ll assume that every advantage other than “size of the cover” and “retro appeal” tilts in favor of the 2017 release!)

CONTENT

The 2002 edition holds three DVDs  – one disc for Monterey Pop (including a lavish array of supplements: commentary tracks, interviews, photo essays, digital reproductions of archival materials and much more), one disc for Jimi Plays Monterey (49 minutes of Jimi Hendrix’s live performance) and Shake! Otis at Monterey (a 19 minute excerpt treatment of Otis Redding’s Saturday night headline appearance), and one disc for two hours of “The Outtake Performances”, additional tracks filmed at the Festival that weren’t included in the final theatrical cut. This collection of songs has become over the years every bit as essential as the material that Pennebaker ultimately chose to include in the main feature, even though the general consensus is that he and his editors made excellent picks that have easily stood the test of time. (Personally, I would have preferred The Blues Project’s “Flute Thing” over the cover version of “Paint It Black” featuring Eric Burdon and the Animals, but let the debate rage on over that one…) Artists listed in this group include:

  • The Association – “Along Comes Mary”
  • Big Brother and the Holding Company – “Combination of the Two” (with stereo and 5.1 option)
  • The Blues Project – “The Flute Thing”
  • Buffalo Springfield – “For What It’s Worth”
  • The Paul Butterfield Blues Band – “Driftin’ Blues” (with a “video cut” that intersperses crowd reaction shots and an audio-only track of the full performance )
  • The Byrds – “Chimes of Freedom”, “He Was a Friend of Mine” and “Hey Joe”
  • Country Joe and the Fish – “Not-So-Sweet Martha Lorraine”
  • The Electric Flag – “Drinkin’ Wine”
  • Jefferson Airplane – “Somebody to Love”
  • Al Kooper – “(I Heard Her Say) Wake Me, Shake Me”
  • The Mamas and the Papas – “Straight Shooter”, “Somebody Groovy”, “I Call Your Name”, “Monday, Monday”, “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)” with Scott McKenzie, and “Dancing in the Street”
  • Laura Nyro – “Wedding Bell Blues” and “Poverty Train”
  • Quicksilver Messenger Service – “All I Ever Wanted to Do (Was Love You)”
  • Simon and Garfunkel – “Homeward Bound” and “The Sounds of Silence”
  • Tiny Tim – “King for a Day”, “Laugh, Clown, Laugh”, “May God Be With Our Boys Tonight” and “My What a Funny Little World This Is”
  • The Who – “Substitute”, “Summertime Blues”, “A Quick One While He’s Away” (with stereo and 5.1 mix option)

2009’s box includes two Blu-rays – one disc that includes Monterey Pop and The Outtake Performances, which in this edition feature all of the above named artists and another disc dedicated to the Hendrix and Redding films. All of the bonus content from the DVDs is simply carried over into a new Blu-ray reissue.

The 2017 package is comprised of three Blu-rays – one for Monterey Pop, one for the Hendrix/Redding combo, and one for the Outtakes, which are now expanded, and for my money, make the strongest argument for upgrading from any of the earlier versions. Newly included artists to this set include:

  • The Grateful Dead – “Viola Lee Blues” (a 9 minute segment of a song that went on considerably longer on stage, but this is “the entirety of what the film crew shot” according to the disc menu)
  • The Steve Miller Blues Band – “Mercury Blues” and “Super Shuffle”
  • Moby Grape – “Hey Grandma”

Of the newly added outtake material, it’s easily understandable why the Steve Miller and Moby Grape tracks were not originally included, as their appeal for all but the Summer of Love completionist is somewhat diminished by the fragmentary nature of the segments and, in Moby Grape’s case, a mediocre performance of a fairly forgettable song. I’m sure they did better in the concert itself, but they were an opening act and the cameras weren’t rolling when they hit their peak. But the Grateful Dead cut is really great, an essential glimpse of the band near the launch of their legendary career, with Jerry Garcia still beardless and relatively trim, Pig Pen grinding away at the keyboards, Bob Weir’s youthful locks flapping freely and the Lesh/Kreutzman rhythm section providing plenty of thump as they rip through a feisty rendition of their legendary set-opening number from this era. It really feels like somebody was sitting on this one throughout the decades – maybe the Dead because they didn’t want to authorize truncated footage (I can’t imagine that they’d be dissatisfied with the quality of the clip) or maybe it was just Pennebaker or Janus Films who wanted to retain one last gold nugget to add extra enticement to a future re-release. Whatever the explanation, I am so glad to finally have access to this clip – I’ve already played it five or six times since receiving the disc last week.

The other big addition here is Chiefs, a 20 minute film directed by Richard Leacock, a member of D.A. Pennebaker’s camera crew. Taken as a standalone short, the subject matter (cinema verite footage from a convention of American police chiefs held in Honolulu sometime in the fall of 1968) doesn’t seem all that compatible with the blissful flower power vibe captured in all the other material in this package. But Chiefs and Monterey Pop have a shared history, as the short film was shown alongside the musical feature during the initial theatrical run of 1968-69. And I think this is another totally brilliant addition that makes the set even more comprehensive, satisfying and illuminating than all previous versions. The stark contrast between the two worlds depicted in the respective films serves to remind us of the profound cultural divisions that roiled American society in the late 1960s, and gives a demonstrative slice of equal time to the self-appointed guardians of Richard Nixon’s “law & order” ethos. We see the cops candidly discussing their riot-busting tactics as they share tips on how to effectively lay down a blanket of tear gas to disperse crowds and lament the ascendant influence of the Black Panthers, left wing academics and other progressive intellectuals who dare to question their authority. The comments and attitudes expressed in the clip are presented directly, straight from the source and without editorial comment. Chiefs holds up an unflinching mirror to our own times and reveals quite a bit about the roots of the entrenched negativity of contemporary public discourse. It’s an exceptionally timely inclusion that puts the musical and cultural revolution of Monterey Pop in a broader context.

IMAGE

As mentioned above, the new 2017 edition features a 16-bit 4K transfer that I imagine will be hard to surpass in any meaningful way in future home video releases. But the truth is, I didn’t see a remarkable difference between the two Blu-ray images. I’m only watching on a 50″ UHD system (which is ideal for the space it’s in) so maybe the latest upgrade shines more brightly on larger systems. DVDBeaver gives the two editions its usual trustworthy comparison test and finds the upgrade worthwhile, so there’s that. On my home setup, I can see that the colors are a bit richer, the image a bit crisper at times, but not all that profoundly, in 4K. Still, the original source materials were fairly limited to begin with, so the 16mm frames will always yield a lot of grain and fuzz around the edges, and this particular production generated quite a few hairs in the gate as well. Pristine visuals are not really the main attraction of Monterey Pop in any case, but I guess it’s nice to know that the film elements have received the highest level of preservative and restorative attention. I’m genuinely glad that the digital clean-up was appropriately restrained enough to not materially alter the experience of watching these beloved performance clips as we’ve come to know them.

SOUND

From the looks of it, there don’t appear to be any substantial changes to the audio options, other than that the Blu-rays feature uncompressed sound, which the DVDs weren’t able to fit onto the disc. The choice is between reproduction of the original stereo theatrical track, an enhanced “new” (from 2002) stereo mix that features much better bass and overall richer sounds, and a 5.1 mix that doesn’t pack as much overt punch as the alternate stereo but is still my preferred option, as it would be for anyone who has the necessary equipment. I don’t see any advantage coming from the upgrade in this area.

PACKAGE

From a purely stylistic perspective, I always preferred the look and feel of the old DVD box to the first Blu-ray edition. I’m a digipak guy, so take that into consideration – each of the discs was placed in its own custom-designed cardboard case with embedded plastic trays to hold the discs. The 2009 box replaced the digipak with two standard Scanovo cases, and the graphics had to be adjusted to fit the new “Wacky C” format, which in this instance diminished the overall design concept. Another detracting element from the Blu-ray upgrade was that the lovely perfect-bound book of the DVD set, that nested comfortably next to the digipaks, had to be converted over to a conventional saddle-stitched (stapled) booklet that got scrunched tightly into a plastic case, losing 20 pages (mostly just photo illustrations) in the process. What a drag!

The new edition is, I’m glad to say, a winner in all respects. (Unless you’re a digipak hater, that is.) The artwork is a nice retrieval from original posters created for the film in 1968 by French illustrator Tomi Ungerer. (Trivia hint: the  notorious “boobies” cartoon now featured on the covers is actually included in the earlier packages, but you have to be inquisitive to find it.) All three discs are stored in a fold-out digipak, with two of them overlapping each other, which is a bit of a hassle, but I appreciate the economy of the design. The menus still include a sound and video collage, which I appreciate, rather than the silent static image approach that Criterion has been favoring in many recent releases, and the perfect bound book has returned, this time with fresh illustrations, all the old written material and ten more pages than the original DVD booklet. The main asset here is an excellent new essay by Dylan curator Michael Chaiken, who provides an eloquent, deeply informed reflection on the festival’s lasting impact from the perspective of a half-century on.

BOTTOM LINE

If you already own the 2009 box, it makes plenty of sense to save a few bucks and just get the Montery Pop standalone version, since you’ll get all the new stuff in that edition as well. The Jimi and Otis films basically didn’t get any further attention in this upgrade, and it’s unlikely that they ever will. I still see an overall advantage to having the whole thing in one tidy package, and the truth is that I will gladly hold on to all versions of this material. I might even buy the laserdisc someday just to complete the quartet! But for anyone who doesn’t yet possess it, The Complete Monterey Pop Festival gets as strong of a “must own” recommendation from me as I am capable of giving.

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Last updated on November 20, 2019 10:13 am
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