It’s a scene that is now etched in rock music history — Jimi Hendrix on stage at the Monterey Pop festival playing the guitar upside down, jamming it against his amplifier, then in a hail of screeching feedback taking out lighter fluid and igniting his Fender Stratocaster before smashing it on the stage.
Mayhem follows and the crowd is slack jawed.
Turning to DA Pennebaker, the man who caught this all on film for the documentary, Monterey Pop, I asked what he thought of Hendrix’s performance that night? His answer threw me completely.
“I thought, this is just noise. I thought, that isn’t what I know of as a blues performance,” he said.
Well he’s honest anyway! Not many people would admit that was their first reaction to Jimi Hendrix.
He goes on: “It took me maybe one or two songs to realise exactly what Hendrix was doing.”
“He was making music out of noise. Nobody had ever done that before.”
One thing you can count on from Pennebaker — when you ask a question you’ll get reflection and honesty.
Asked what it was like to spend time with David Bowie, he said:
“When I went to meet him him he was talking about his mother seeing her first spaceship … he was definitely not a normal person.”
“It would be good to make a film about him … because he’s so bad at what he does now, but he’s going to get better.
“I think he’s like a kid driving a car, he’ll figure it out eventually and he might be interesting.”
Climb inside the camera
It seems there’s almost no one of any cultural significance in the past 60 years that Pennebaker hasn’t met or tried to make a film about. Jack Kennedy, Bob Dylan, Hendrix, Otis Redding, John Lennon, Bowie and Bill Clinton.
Be they politicians or pop stars, they’ve all received the Pennebaker treatment. A filmmaker, a subject and a camera. Always letting the characters and the action tell the story.
Film scholars gave the style he helped pioneer a name, “direct cinema”.
There is no better example of the Pennebaker creed than Dont Look Back.
Spending weeks with Bob Dylan on his British tour of 1965, the filmmaker melts into the woodwork, capturing an artist who is leaving his folk audience, leaving his lover, Joan Baez, and setting a revolutionary musical course. No one is spared, as the camera rolls on, not even Dylan.
Monterey Pop — a seat in the front row
Pennebaker’s filmography, including many made with his wife Chris Hegedus, is vast.
In a way it’s crazy to think about one film as his masterpiece. But of all the projects he’s worked on, Monterey Pop is the one that astonishes with its prescience, power and breadth.
The 50th anniversary of the music festival, held at the Monterey Fairground, south of San Francisco, happens this weekend.
Pennebaker can still remember the moment when producer Lou Adler and John Phillips from The Mamas and The Papas asked him to make the film that would document the world’s first rock festival.
What they expected from Pennebaker was unclear. Certainly they wanted a showcase for the artists they’d invited, but what they got was something far more complex; a documentary that captured a moment in history where music and society changed forever.
“A lot of people who then went to see the film saw something more than just a film about music … they saw something, a change. They saw that change in ways that we couldn’t even imagine.”
Monterey became a showcase for musicians keen to make a statement, keener still to have an impact and Pennebaker put us all in the front row.
“It was like music was scaring you because it was so serious. It was about things that you had not thought about [related] to music before,” he said.
Janis, Jimi, Otis — gone before their time
“They had never heard anyone like Janis tell how hard it was … she had a very hard young life … it was like — I’ve been f***ed over so long that you can’t believe it, and this is how it feels.”
On stage that desire by the performers to risk all was very clear. While some stumbled under the weight of expectation, others delivered performances that launched them skywards including Janis Joplin, Redding, The Who and Hendrix.
For Pennebaker it was a quality that powered the film. It also had a flip side. That freedom in artists like Hendrix also led to excess.
“He seemed like a wild, crazy, rock and roller but he was this very gentle, polite person. I loved him and I was sad when he died. All those people died within a short time of the film coming out. Janis, Jimi and Otis,” Pennebaker said.
The power of Monterey Pop though, rests not only with the fact it caught so many artists in their prime, but also in the way it captured the audience. They, too, were central players.
Indian tee-pees were built, a small city took shape for the weekend. There was long hair, beads, incense and the beginning of the back to the land movement.
Monterey Pop captured the birth of the counter-culture, the Woodstock generation before it was even called that.
‘Documentary making is watching’
Monterey Pop would lead Pennebaker on to many more projects; Lennon, Bowie and Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign. Each film breaking ground as they captured unforgettable characters.
I wondered if there was anyone he would like to have documented. He pauses.
“My closest friend was Bobby Kennedy. I knew he was going to run long before he announced it, and I said, I want to film you right up to the day you walk into the White House,” he said.
As it happened no one would back the film financially and that meant an opportunity was lost. It also meant the film maker wasn’t in Los Angeles when Kennedy was assassinated.
“I still feel like I was saved, that I didn’t go there … that would have made me not want to make films anymore,” he said.
It was a jolt of reality and it suggested perhaps I’d taken enough of his time.
Before leaving, though, I wanted to know what advice he’d have for any young documentary maker.
“Pay attention, pay attention … pay lots of attention and get good at whatever that makes you do. But it’s watching. Documentary making is watching,” he said.
Pennebaker is 91. He still works, he still thinks about who he’d like to profile.
As I said farewell he sat back down at his desk. Glancing over my shoulder I saw him looking at a trailer for one of his films that’s being re-released. He’s utterly absorbed. He is watching.
As I made my way back through the hall and archive room, I see the film canisters again and the names.
I realised Pennebaker has been watching people with his camera for more than six decades. Watching on our behalf, making movies for us and telling us about the people who changed our world.
Thank you Mr Pennebaker.