The Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, $69.95
At the Monterey Pop Festival on June 17, 1967, Otis Redding, who was then 25 years old, must have surmised that he had reached the apex of his career to date, with future peaks awaiting him.
Not that you would necessarily be able to tell this from the film of his set that has just come out on Blu-ray as part of the Criterion Collection’s souped-up reissue of D.A. Pennebaker’s festival film. I make that qualification because if you had stuck Redding on a stage in an empty bar save for a hobgoblin and a Dorito, I’m pretty sure he would have performed with the same fervid emotionalism and enveloping ardor that he did at his big breakout gig.
That’s how Otis Redding was, and how he surely would have continued to be, had it not been for the plane crash that claimed his life on December 10 of that same year. It cut short what was sure to be a meteoric rise: The music industry is largely a meritocracy, or it was in Redding’s time, anyway. If you were good enough, if you had the songs, the chops, the voice, the killer technique, you would eventually have your day. Maybe your day wouldn’t be as long as it ought to have been—the great rhythm and blues singer, Arthur Alexander, who influenced Redding, comes to mind—but you wouldn’t perpetually be buried beneath leaves hoping and praying that someday you’d see the sun.
That figurative sun was hot on Redding’s back during his Monterey performance, and watching this stunner of a short film now, you realize you’re seeing one of the great moments of the 1960s on the pop culture front.
The bulk of the crowd at Monterey was white, more attuned to guitar-based music than to what Redding was putting forward, with its emphasis on horns, shouted vocals straight out of the Baptist service, and cajoling, mellifluous whispers in the spaces between those full-throated, cascading lunges.
Jimi Hendrix had his breakthrough moment there, too, of course, and that’s another short film in this Criterion package; but Hendrix never really felt black or white. He didn’t even feel earthly, which gave a hint of his own life-shortening tragedy to come. He was someone you could not figure out; the creation that inspired such awe also suspended you in a kind of fear because of how foreign he appeared. You headed without hesitation toward his particular flame, just as unerringly as Hendrix’s hand did toward his guitar—which he had just set on fire.
Redding was more inclusive, which was crucial for making soul and rootsy black music more popular. He was one of music’s greatest unifiers, regardless of era, but his was an era that certainly needed someone like him. Our own current age could do with a Redding-like figure as well, but I can’t think of one. I can’t even come close to thinking of one.
Everything, now, no matter its ostensible purpose, has an element of toxicity, of axe-grinding. Redding strikes me as someone who would be horrified by elements of the Black Lives Matter movement, being wise enough to see that certain roads, if traveled down, produce the same forms of hate that led to a given movement in the first place. What’s always fascinated me about Redding is that he was his own mini-movement—a devoutly black artist, who never shied away from hardcore blues, soul, and rhythm and blues, whose art privileged no color or creed. It was about exploding into new worlds, trusting someone—in this case, the artist—to get you there safely. Redding exuded that vibe of sanctuary and, with it, transformation; I see no other artist doing that in the world right now. Which is, of course, part of the reason why we inhabit a cesspool.
Before Otis, black music was the stuff of the rhythm-and-blues charts, though a few artists, like James Brown and Sam Cooke, had hits that white people were as apt to listen to as black. But if you were white, James Brown’s music couldn’t help but feel like a field trip to a culture not your own, with rhythms off-kilter compared to those you were accustomed to, and sociological concerns that didn’t sync up with what was going on in your daily life. Otis’s world was new. Rhythmically it was a much richer one, more complex, more true-to-life, more contrapuntal and even Bachian.
Meanwhile, there was the often-conflicted Sam Cooke, who toured with one band for the white crowds and another band for the black crowds. His hits were regularly on the safe side—less soulful, and though not less aesthetically pleasing than his late night rhythm-and-blues efforts, tailored to that slumber party a suburban white girl had been pining to throw for her birthday.
Sam Cooke, as one of his biggest hits attested, was going to “send” you—and where he was going to send you wasn’t to the projects or the ghetto or deep into the African-American experience—not for most of his career, at least. He got there in due course, with the 1963 album Night Beat and the live recordings made at Miami’s Harlem Square Club that same year, as well as “A Change is Gonna Come” in 1964. Through it all one of his biggest fans, naturally, was Otis Redding, ten years Cooke’s junior.
Redding’s appearance at Monterey was truly seminal. In a sense, this was the fertilization of pop music with deep-bodied soul and rhythm-and-blues and black music. Redding is the preacher of a musical sermon, who kicks cant aside and pleads with the crowd to put their shared emotions first, joining him as he does so before their eyes by way of example.
“What are you feeling?” Redding’s set seems to ask. The camera closes in on his soaked brow. You wonder how much fluid he is losing, how his voice is not giving out on him as he asks so much of it.
Like Dylan, Redding wasn’t someone who sang with classical technique; the diaphragm is getting a touch neglected here, with a lot of his vocal coming from up top, if you will, rather than down below, the back of the throat rather than the belly. But that just makes everything feel more human, because it’s how you and I would probably sing. He performs Cooke’s “Shake” like a master songster, giving a lesson in emotional calisthenics. The Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” is all trumpet-y, brassy, delighted, less about sex, more about the griping we all do, with some laughter mixed in. It makes us feel better and ready to move on to the gripes the next day will bring. That is how we are; we are human, and Otis reflects that reality back to us.
In Monterey Redding became the Soul Everyman. The roots of his set were in those church services, but the House of the Lord had given way to the Domain of the World, a temple that knows no creed, chapter and verse, or race, save the knowledge that we are all under one sky right now but one day we won’t be.
Seeing Redding at Monterey still makes us feel good about the possibilities of existence, all these many years later, in part because he was a virtuoso of energy. We commonly use that as a left-handed compliment: Rather than say someone has real talent, we say they have energy, like the proverbial eager beaver who just tries hard. But the more talent one has, the more energy one possesses to create, the ideas coming nonstop, the artistic creations that will last forever coming shortly thereafter. Schubert had it, Mozart had it, Proust had it, Poe had it, Dylan had it and still has it. Artistic and mental muscle hustles. And Otis Redding had it in spades.
To sit down and create at the highest levels requires something more than brilliance and even genius; it requires emotion and drive that only a few people have. That was a big part of Redding’s gift, and a lot of white people, and some black people, got to see it fifty years ago. Now everyone, regardless of color, creed, denomination, and all the rest, can watch again. If you ever worried that his form of music was not for you, Otis alleviated that, never more openly, cathartically, than at Monterey. I can’t think of any performer in the 1960s, that decade of so much change, who did this to the same degree.
John Coltrane had his version of busting all the doors down, but his music didn’t wrap its arms around you. Redding’s music did. Do you ever stop living when you’re in a film like this? Redding’s genius-drenched coda to “Try a Little Tenderness” will never die. Preach on, Brother O.