Rock Docs spotlight: “Woodstock” (1970)

The Woodstock Music and Art Fair, held fifty years ago this month in upstate New York, was such a monumental event that there is little that hasn’t been said about it at this late date. Each significant anniversary has seen the media gorging on remembrances, reissues and reponderings of history’s most famous rock music festival and its relevance to the social sea change it brought on, or at least reflected. But still, now 50 years later, they have nothing over Michael Wadleigh’s sprawling, indispensable filmed record—a project that almost never got off the ground. Festival promoters Michael Lang and Artie Kornfeld initially had no luck finding an investor to fund a camera crew to cover an event that no one thought would draw more than fifty thousand people. The only one willing to take a chance was newly minted Warner Brothers studio executive Fred Weintraub, a New York hipster who had owned the famed Bottom Line nightclub. Over the objections of others at WB, Weintraub advanced one hundred thousand dollars to finance the filming. When the humble “Aquarian Exposition” turned into an epic long weekend that attracted nearly half a million young folks, the demand for the finished film went through the roof. The only rock documentary to ever win an Academy Award (until 2012’s “Searching for Sugar Man” and the following year’s “Twenty Feet from Stardom”), “Woodstock” eventually grossed over fifty million dollars in its theatrical release and has enjoyed a long afterlife on home video, especially in the expanded 230-minute director’s cut introduced in 1994.


Premiering nationally on PBS is the excellent “Woodstock: 3 Days That Defined a Generation.” This trailer may lapse into cliche but this new documentary is a fresh look at the long ago events in upstate NY from a more sociological angle, with all the visuals being archival footage from the event, matched with the voices of those who were there (along with a smattering of key musical moments).

Wadleigh and his hastily assembled seventy-man crew, organized by a young assistant director named Martin Scorsese, spread out over the vast scene, diligently covering every aspect of that long weekend. The music and the hippie idealism are in great supply, of course, but as part of a microcosm of a time that sees past the expected clichés that have long since taken hold. Ironically, a lot of those clichés stem from this very film as well as from the soundtrack album with which it often overlaps. It starts with the warning about the brown LSD that’s “not specifically too good” and goes from there. “New York State Thruway is closed, man!” “If you sing really hard, maybe we can stop this rain!” “There’s always a little bit of heaven in a disaster area.”


“Blind Faith is a groovy group.” A popular clip in the Internet age is the “Emotional Colors” girl, later identified as the late Jeanette McCurdy of Buffalo, NY.

The frequent use of split-screen images showed the multiple perspectives of a situation that the crew saw as an unfolding story that could turn out either way. The “Biblical/epochal” scene described by a joint-rolling Jerry Garcia is established in a twenty-minute prologue before Richie Havens wows the first day crowd with his improvised-on-the-spot anthem “Freedom.” What follows is a steady stream of outstanding (and often career-making) musical performances by the likes of Santana, Sly and the Family Stone, Ten Years After, Joe Cocker, the Who, Crosby, Stills and Nash, and others.

The logistical and crowd scenes that pop up after every three or four songs are every bit as interesting, especially the bravura ten-minute sequence depicting the famous Sunday thunderstorm. It drenched a crowd that had just been galvanized by Cocker’s dramatic recasting of the Beatles’ “With a Little Help from My Friends,” and thrust the stage crew into the role of reassuring the sea of humanity while simultaneously fretting over the fate of their vulnerable light towers and staving off the possibility of electrocution. When the crowd comes out the other end of this mud-covered crucible with their good spirits intact, their reputation is made.

What is just as impressive is the tolerant, even admiring, attitudes towards the crowd from many “straights” in the surrounding area, especially considering the whole county was brought to a virtual standstill because of the event. There’s the genial portable-toilet cleaning man (“glad to do it for these kids”) speaking fondly of both his son at the festival and the other one in Vietnam; the chief of police pronouncing that the hippies “can’t be questioned as good American citizens;” the visibly moved Max Yasgur proclaiming that the legions camped on his farm “have proven something to the world;” and the middle-aged gentleman who suggests to another that he should care more about the kids dying in ’Nam and lay off criticizing the ones smoking pot and sleeping in the field. These people suggest there was too much emphasis on the generation gap back then and too little on the value of good character, regardless of demographics.

Michael Wadleigh would eventually become disillusioned with the film business, making only one more movie (1981’s Wolfen) and eventually turning to environmental activism. Sensing that these “3 Days of Peace & Music” were destined to be the high water mark of the counterculture, the director picked up a camera on Monday morning and filmed scenes of the muddy, garbage-strewn aftermath that he has said were directly influenced by T. S. Eliot’s poem The Wasteland. Because of the weekend’s many delays, the music was not over: When headliner Jimi Hendrix hits a cataclysmic guitar chord that introduces his decade-defining deconstruction of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the camera pulls back to reveal that the cheering audience now numbers around thirty thousand.

In an artfully presented sequence, Wadleigh first stays close to Hendrix as he transforms the national anthem into an implied antiwar protest with an astounding series of explosions, shrieks, and moans coaxed out of his white Stratocaster. He sticks with him as he roars through his monster hit “Purple Haze” (“Is it tomorrow or just the end of time?”) then switches to the dazed stragglers picking through the debris for the odd scrap of food or a pair of discarded sneakers. Hendrix finishes with an elegiac guitar solo that gives the film its soft landing. This thoughtful and somewhat sober ending underlines the feeling that if Woodstock the music festival was the brightest point of light for the ideals of the 1960s youth generation, Woodstock the film was the greatest advocate of those ideals.

Portions of this post were taken from my book Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey. Click on the book cover above, or the link below, to see a 30-page excerpt. Thanks, Rick
https://booklocker.com/books/8905.html

3 comments

    1. “I don’t know how you expect to stop the war if you can’t sing any louder that that. There’s about 300,000 of you fuckers out there, I want you to sing!!” I could quote from the movie all day! Enjoy your screening..

  1. I’m British and not yet 60 so Woodstock for me is more a fascinating glimpse at a key moment in cultural history. As you say however, from this perspective, it’s the crowd scenes and the interviews that are the most enjoyable part.

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