Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Reluctant Rockumentarist

Never too taken with cinema verite's low-rent perks, D.A. Pennebaker has been a reluctantly ineluctable rockumentarist since Don't Look Back caught Bob Dylan in the act and Monterey Pop prepared the way for both Woodstock and Woodstock. In 1969 he took less than a week to organize production on Toronto Pop (later Keep On Rockin', still later Sweet Toronto); just last year he contracted to shoot a Depeche Mode feature group unheard. Outtakes from Monterey Pop, a more carefully conceived and realized project, found their way into version two of the Toronto movie. Now he's recycled Monterey's two most undeniable performances into a 20-minute Otis Redding short, Shake, and a 50-minute Jimi Hendrix doc, Jimi Plays Monterey. Can Janis Joplin, who gigged twice at the festival, be far behind?

The Hendrix movie, plumped up with non-Pennebaker footage from swingin'-era London and accounts of the guitarist's Village days by Monterey honcho turned cocaine survivor John Phillips, is the featured attraction. But Shake is the prize. Well-shot vintage soul performances are as scarce as chitlins on Wall Street, and though these 20,000 white protobohemians weren't exactly Redding's hippest audience, he was definitely out to prove something to "the love crowd." Clad in a memorable forest-green suit, the most country of the great soul men trundled his oversized body all over the stage in a condensed set of surefire material. The glaring spotlight effects that spoiled Redding's segment of the original film are mostly gone; except for the girls-of-Monterey montage accompanying "Try a Little Tenderness," Pennebaker honors the visual facts, most notably Redding's big-hearted face. In the best verite tradition, Pennebaker is drawn to interesting faces--even his tribute to the ladies doesn't settle for pretty.

By my count, Jimi Plays Monterey is the fifth concert documentary devoted solely to Hendrix, and while it may be the best, no one would claim it's definitive. Sure beats Rainbow Bridge, say, but the music can't match that sorry film's "Train Kept A-Rollin'," or Woodstock's "Star-Spangled Banner." Music was a given for a Hendrix stuck with topping the Who's guitar-smashing tour de force. It's great sport to watch this outrageous scene-stealer wiggle his tongue, pick with his teeth, and set his axe on fire, but the showboating does distract from the history made that night--the dawning of an instrumental technique so effortlessly fecund and febrile that rock has yet to equal it, though hundreds of metal bands have gotten rich trying.

Admittedly, nowhere else will you witness a Hendrix still uncertain of his divinity. Dead at 27, he was never not young, but he didn't stay this innocent for long. Redding, who would die sooner and younger, was always a little naive, and never so innocent. Maybe that's the difference between soul and rock.

Village Voice, July 18, 1989