Thursday, June 7, 2012

#661. Woodstock (1970)

Directed By: Michael Wadleigh

Starring: Joan Baez, Richie Havens, Joe Cocker

Tag line: "For those of you who never knew. And for those of you who haven't forgotten"

Trivia: This documentary was reportedly edited from 120 hours of footage shot at the three-day concert

Woodstock is, hands-down, my favorite documentary. Director Michael Wadleigh's epic film did more than capture an event; it served as a time capsule for an entire era. 

It is a passive movie in that the cameras hang back and watch as various musicians perform on stage, occasionally breaking away to wander among the massive crowds. Yet Woodstock takes an active role in the festivities as well, effectively pulling us in so that we the audience can experience, first-hand, the excitement of it all.

Shot on location between Aug. 15-18, 1969, Woodstock is a detailed account of the famous music festival that took up every inch of a 600-acre dairy farm in Bethel, New York. Organized by producer Michael Lang, it was initially predicted that as many as 200,000 people might attend what was being billed as “3 Days of Peace and Music”. 

Ultimately, half a million showed up, causing huge traffic jams and leading Sullivan County, NY (where Bethel is located) to declare a State of Emergency. 

Despite a heavy downpour that briefly delayed the entertainment, 32 different acts performed over the course of the event, including Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Joan Baez, The Who, and the Grateful Dead.

And in the grand scheme of things, that’s what Woodstock was all about: the music. The film presents a number of the festival's highlights, including Joe Cocker's soulful interpretation of the Beatles' “With A Little Help From My Friends”; Crosby, Still and Nash performing their hit, “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes”; Country Joe McDonald getting the crowd to spell an expletive just before treating them to his anti-war ballad, “I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixing-To-Die-Rag”; and Jimi Hendrix's incredible rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner”. Even if you're not a fan of the era's music, you'll be swept up by the energy spilling off the screen as one legendary artist after another takes the stage.

But Woodstock focuses our attention in other directions as well, offering interviews with those who made the pilgrimage to attend the festival, and some of the unfortunate townsfolk trying to deal with the chaos (a local milk farmer is asked what he thinks of the event. “It’s a shitty mess”, he replies, complaining his fields have been torn up, and because the trucks can’t get through, his outgoing shipment of milk is going to spoil). We visit the makeshift tents that functioned as medical facilities and food distribution centers, and stand in the long lines of young people waiting to use the handful of available pay phones. 

Several images from Woodstock have become iconic, like the Catholic nun flashing the peace sign as she walks past the camera, or the infamous “mud slide”, where a group of revelers playfully coast along the rain-soaked fields. With director Wadleigh utilizing split-screens, which sometimes show as many as three different views of the action at once, Woodstock ensures we experience as much of this history-making event, both on-stage and off, as we possibly can.

Woodstock the festival was more than a concert, and Woodstock the film is more than a motion picture. It is the chronicle of a generation, and whether you love what that generation stood for or you hate it, you cannot deny the magnitude of these 3 Days of Peace and Music.


Robert M. Lindsey said...

I love, love, love the music, but the interviews make me gag. Most of the things that come out of the kids mouths are just so stupid. Did people really think that way? You're right about it being a time capsule. Maybe as a Gen Xer I'm just too jaded.

DVD Infatuation said...

Robert: Ha's hard to argue with you: these kids come off sounding more than a little loopy. I can only imagine they were being genuine at the time (though I bet most of them changed their views within a few years).

And yeah, the music is phenomenal.

Thanks again, sir!