Synopsis: 1969 was a year unlike any other. Man first set foot on the moon. The New York Mets won the World Series against all odds. And for three days in the rural town of Bethel, New York, half a million people experienced the single most defining moment of their generation; a concert unprecedented in scope and influence, a coming together of people from all walks of life with a single common goal: Peace and music. They called it Woodstock. One year later, a landmark Oscar-winning documentary captured the essence of the music, the electricity of the performances, and the experience of those who lived it. Newly remastered, the film features legendary performances by 17 best selling artists.
“Good morning! What we have in mind is breakfast in bed for four hundred thousand.”
It had been years since I’d last watched ‘Woodstock’. It might have been as long as a decade and a half, actually. I always meant to buy the DVD, but it was a “flipper” – which meant that you had to flip it over to the other side of the DVD to play the other half of the film. Urgh.
I waited patiently until they released the full thing on a one-sided disc, so that I could just pop it in and let it run as a background soundtrack when I had friends over. But the wait seemed endless. Every time that I checked, the only version that seemed available was that god-forsaken “flipper” DVD.
With BD technology, they could not only put the whole darned shebang on one disc, but they also included an uncompressed audio track. And reviews for it were phenomenal! I was so eager to get it, I would have trampled over a few ageing hippies on my way to the store if Amazon didn’t have an exclusive version that includes extra performances on it. Dang. I don’t have accredit card, and Amazon don’t use Paypal.
Fortunately, I found some local guy who had bought the Amazon edition and wanted to part with it. I couldn’t believe it! Granted, I would be paying more for all the swag (it was released in a deluxe box with tons of extra junk), but I would finally get my hands on a proper copy of ‘Woodstock’ after all these years – and be able to enjoy tons of extras to boot! So I made arrangements with the guy to meet him at the other end of town – on my day off, of all things. Just so I could get my grubby hands on it.
I’d forgotten just how brilliant this film is, quite frankly. Well, either time had dulled out my memory or it has permitted me to grow as a cinephile in such a way that I can appreciate it now more than ever. I may also have underestimated the awesomeness of ‘Woodstock’.
But I now hold it in much higher esteem. In fact, I found it fascinating, if not completely engrossing – despite its gargantuan length of 228 minutes (that’s almost 4 hours!!! ). It’s a glimpse into not only an event, but an era that I never knew and never will, a moment where good will and hope trumped cynicism and apathy. The backers of the concert took a bath over it, and it was a disaster in many respects, but that was hardly the point of Woodstock, was it?
If anything, Woodstock (both the event and the film) is a journey – of the mind, perhaps even of the soul. Woodstock was a place where many went to find answers, to be at one with like-minded people. It was a time of self-reflection, of trying to find a different path, a new way of being.
This comes across even in the film. I loved seeing everyone in “Peace and Love” mode. And not just the hippy youth, either: even the adults who were interviewed were laid back and expressed surprise at how nice the kids were and treated them with respect. I found it unusual but pleasing to see everyone casually walk around naked, free. Good luck recreating that today.
For good or bad, ‘Woodstock’ doesn’t faithfully represent the festival – there are moments that were shifted around in the timeline for tone and flow. While I find it unfortunate, because it means that it doesn’t portray its subject entirely accurately, it does serve it well by creating a mood, a vibe, that would be representative of the place that Woodstock, the cultural landmark, holds in the hearts and minds of many. The reality, however, is that, as with almost any documentary film, it’s a mild fabrication.
‘Woodstock’ starts in a casual way, showing the beginnings of the festival. It was great watching the set-up of the Woodstock Music and Art Fair (as it was original called). It seemed slightly improvised, as though they were just making it up as they went. Unlike the commercial enterprises that are professional touring acts, who are efficient in an almost military manner, here we see a bunch of long-haired guys hammer planks together, trying to set the stage. It immediately made me wonder if they were even ready for the size of the endeavour.
Then people started to arrive – leisurely at first, and then in throngs, in inescapable masses. Some reports put the numbers as high as 500,000 people. It’s hard to say for sure, amid the chaos, the disarray, but there were seas of them. The organizers had initially expected upwards of 200,000 people, but more than twice that amount showed up. It was so overwhelming that they had to just let people in for free. Throughout the documentary, we hear festival-goers state that, collectively, they amounted to being one of the largest cities in the whole world. Amusingly, it started off being “one of” and it eventually morphed into “the”.
And then the place turned into a disaster area. Unable to sustain such numbers, the county declared a state of emergency. The roads were completely blocked by all the traffic (and mud, due to all the rain), there wasn’t enough food for everyone, the facilities were over-burdened and the organisers were not prepared to offer first aid to such masses. They had to bring in helicopters to toss food and clothes into the crowd, because there was no other way to get anything to them.
I can’t say that I’m a fan of sixties rock music, and I’m not into folk music in general, but I really enjoyed watching all the performances. The Director’s Cut of the film, which is the only one available now, as far as I know, has an extra 40 minutes or so of performances, with some acts extended and others included where they weren’t in the original theatrical version of the film.
I tried to keep notes on each of them as I watched the film:
Canned Heat: Good blues-based rock.
Country Joe and The Fish: Rocket Soul Music? Really? It was like a poor man’s The Doors.
Arlo Guthrie: Good. Decent.
John Sebastian: Too spaced out to remember his own lyrics, and he was waaaay too lovey-dovey, sappy. Nice anyway.
Jimi Hendrix: Hearing his version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” in grade 8 music class may have changed my life; I didn’t know that it was possible to play guitar that way until that moment. It’s a blistering set that also included “Voodoo Child” and “Purple Haze”. It’s by far the longest segment of the film, and deservedly so.
If one compares the film’s performances with the actual festival line-up, it’s clear that liberties were taken in the editing process – some performances are on completely different days than they are as presented in ‘Woodstock’. I’d be curious to know how the filmmakers made their choices, and why they moved things around the way that they did. Perhaps they were “serving the mix”, so to speak. I would have put things chronologically, personally. Hmmm… I’m curious to know if they explain this in the BD’s special features.
Speaking of editing, ‘Woodstock’ serves up a lot of split-screens, giving a LOT of footage to watch. Aside from the concert footage, which sometimes overlapped multiple angles or images, the behind-the-scenes sequences almost always showed two images at once (although, thankfully, there was only dialogue in one shot at a time! ). What was also cool is that there were many aspect ratios along the way. It changed things up nicely. And, given the length of the picture, it was welcome.
The surround mixing on the Blu-ray presentation was tremendous. It not only filled the room, but it separated the sound from the various pictures perfectly and panned beautifully. At one point, a motorcycle was running on the right side of the screen and the sound was so brilliantly blended into the environment that I thought it was coming from outside the house (my window was open). As well, the crowds were often in the back speakers during the concert footage, immersing me in the shows. Well done.
In that sense, I’d have to say that ‘Woodstock’ is the mark of some pretty fantastic direction. Not only does it flow well, but it’s a great overview and it’s edited in ways that keeps it fascinating. Sure, it may not be truly representative of what actually took place but, as a film, it’s an exceptionally well-crafted one. Of course, this is the Director’s Cut, which was released some 25 years later – who knows if the original Theatrical version was anywhere as well-made. I would certainly like to compare them someday.
Either way, ‘Woodstock’ isn’t just a commemorative film, it’s an experience. I think that it’s a must-see picture – not just as a glimpse at one of the most culturally relevant moments of the last century, but also from a filmmaking perspective. Some may think that it’s over-rated, and that fine. But I respectfully disagree: ‘Woodstock’ deserves its acclaim and its place in the United States National Film Registry. As far as I’m concerned, it’s brilliant.