This June, we mark the 50th anniversary of “the Summer of Love.” Those few months of 1967 brought a renaissance of popular culture that spread from San Francisco’s bohemian enclaves across the entire world. With events like a “Human Be-In” at Golden Gate Park, the City by the Bay became a magnet for free-thinking young people, who flocked there by the tens of thousands during their school break to enjoy the groovy ’Frisco scene. Hippies danced to the beat of a different drummer, and if the Summer of Love was a coming-out party for the counterculture, it was certainly led by music.
The Monterey International Pop Festival, which took place from June 16 – 18, 1967, was the first multi-act outdoor concert to garner international attention. While the line-up featured plenty of well-known hitmakers (including The Mamas & the Papas and Scott McKenzie, then riding the success of flower-power anthem “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)”), the festival was curated to showcase sounds that went beyond radio playlists of the day to encompass blues (Canned Heat), world music (Ravi Shankar) and then-unknown artists. Jimi Hendrix, Otis Redding, and Janis Joplin with Big Brother and the Holding Company rose to fame through now-legendary performances captured on film by documentarian D. A. Pennebaker in Monterey Pop.
The Who was another band introduced to American audiences by a breakthrough performance at Monterey. Already among the vanguard of U.K. rock, the quartet had recently released an album (A Quick One) whose title track was an ambitious nine-minute suite. Along with The Beatles, whose ground-breaking Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band served as a de facto soundtrack for the Summer of Love, The Who epitomized the notion that popular music qualified as art. That approach was borne out on such later “rock operas” as Tommy, about the titular “deaf, dumb and blind boy,” and Quadrophenia, about England’s Mod vs. Rocker skirmishes of the early 1960s.
Though his counterculture credentials were impeccable, Bob Dylan largely sat out the Summer of Love. He had been invited to perform at the Monterey Pop Festival, but was still recuperating from a motorcycle accident the previous year (he was not entirely dormant in 1967; holed up with The Band in a big pink house in Woodstock, New York, he recorded the wonderfully eccentric songs that would eventually be released as The Basement Tapes). While the public didn’t get to see him in concert during 1967, Dylan made a memorable big screen appearance that year in Don't Look Back. Shot by D. A. Pennebaker during the singer-songwriter’s 1965 tour of England, the film captures Dylan on stage, hanging out with fellow musicians Joan Baez, Donovan, and Alan Price, and helping pioneer the music video ("Subterranean Homesick Blues").
Forged in a time of social upheaval that is in many ways similar to our own, the good vibes, artistic creativity and spirit of adventure embodied by the Summer of Love have an appeal that continues today. The American Cinematheque salutes the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love with a weekend film series spotlighting some of the greatest musical talent of the era, including screenings of the iconic D. A. Pennebaker documentaries Monterey Pop and Don't Look Back, and a double feature of big screen adaptations of The Who’s concept albums Tommy and Quadrophenia.