The Criterion Collection's Complete Monterey Pop Festival set is one of the more prodigious archival live rock releases to appear on DVD, dwarfing Warner Bros. Woodstock in terms of both quality and musical significance. The original 79-minute film Monterey Pop, which was available for years on television in dark, indifferently transferred prints, and in a somewhat better laserdisc edition, has been given a high-definition digital transfer under the supervision of director D.A. Pennebaker that is so sharp that it's possible to read the medium-sized print on peoples' t-shirts in the wide shots, and see more detail than anyone who wasn't there ever saw before -- the shorter features, Jimi Plays Monterey and Shake! Otis at Monterey are also included, and look significantly better than the Japanese laserdiscs of either film. The third disc is entitled Monterey Pop: The Outtake Performances, and features two hours of songs and performers that never made it into the original movie, ranging from the Association to Laura Nyro.
There are numerous surprises here beyond the image quality. For starters, the audio has been remixed by Eddie Kramer from the original multi-track sources, into Dolby Digital and DTS, which makes watching this release overall -- even the basic Monterey Pop movie -- the equivalent of taking it all in for the first time; one can hear nuances in the singing and playing, and feel a bracing immediacy that was lacking even in the Rhino Records Monterey Pop Festival box from 1992. The results are to be found throughout these discs, and in some totally unexpected places -- the Byrds were one of the big disappointments at the original festival for their lackluster set that had no real highlights, but viewed and heard here, their playing seems about as solid and impressive as any live gig of theirs that was ever recorded. Similarly, the Blues Project -- who were on their last legs at the festival, in the midst of disintegrating -- is enjoyable here, though ex-member Al Kooper, playing with a hastily assembled band, does play circles around them; and the Buffalo Springfield (sans Neil Young, who was out of the lineup at the time), in their only extant live clip, shows off some of the mixture of garage-punk instrumental attack and folk-based harmonies that made them one of the most exciting rock acts in Los Angeles. The outtake performance clips by the Who and Big Brother & the Holding Company have been remixed in Dolby 5.1 surround, and those are even better. But even the tracks on which high-grade audio materials haven't survived, such as Hugh Masekela's section, are distinctly superior here to their earlier incarnations.
The original film and the Jimi Hendrix and Otis Redding features have been enhanced with multiple commentary tracks, by rock historians Peter Guralnick and Charles Shaar Murray, producer Lou Adler, and director D. A. Pennebaker, and interviews with Phil Walden (Otis Redding's manager) and John Phillips, Derek Taylor, Cass Elliot, and David Crosby. Additionally, the set comes with a 60-page booklet filled with essays and production information on the festival and the film, which completes the picture on this total-immersion musical/cinematic experience. There are a few gaps, such as the absence of more of the Simon & Garfunkel or Jefferson Airplane sets, or of any Moby Grape or Paupers material, but this is still a bigger chunk of the festival than has ever been seen in one place since the actual event. Each disc opens to a well-delineated and easy to use menu, and runs circles around any other release from the festival.