June 06, 2013

WOODSTOCK (1970) - they look just like us

(1970, USA)

Epic documentary about a massively positive moment

After hearing from director Michael Wadleigh at the recent Wolfen screening, (my full report here), it seemed foolish not to watch Woodstock, still not knowing quite what to expect. I like a lot of 1960s music, but more Motown and British pop than the rock and country acts at this festival. But it turns out to be much more than just the music...

After years of trawling through record shops, Woodstock album cover had put me off seeing the film. A blurry photo of a crowd standing in a field, not very cinematic and totally misleading. I was honestly expecting grainy, badly-shot 16mm footage, judging from the cover.

My first-time watch was the remastered Director's Cut, expanded from roughly three to four hours, and it flew by. It describes the event from start to finish, as it nearly becomes a human disaster when half a million people turn up, blocking all roads entering the area, and spreading out over the neighbouring fields. Besides finding tons of extra food for everyone, how can the bands get there if all the roads are blocked?

I found this all fascinating because the focus is just as much on the audience, the organisers and the local reaction to the event. Woodstock is about like-minded people getting together and discovering just how many others there are like them. It's about an open air concert besieged by thunderstorms. And how to police a small city that sprang up overnight.

The attitudes of the time are partly conveyed by the performers and organisers interacting with the crowd. No-one's making speeches, but lyrics and throwaway comments illustrate the openness to recreational drugs, a distrust of the police and anger at the Vietnam War and the resulting compulsory draft (every month, over 30,000 young men were called up to serve in the US Army).

The hippie stereotype is constantly corrected. There's longer hair, but very few people have the 'John Lennon' straight hair, which takes a lot of effort. Not many have sunglasses, rose-tinted or otherwise - they were expensive. There's as many clean-shaven guys as those with beards or taches. Like any crowd, it's simply not definable. It's a cross-section of young people of the time, attending for the music and the vibe. There's no uniform. The current shorthand of the hippy 'look' is an amalgam of what the superstars wore, not the crowd: Janis Joplin's little round sunglasses, Jimi Hendrix's waistcoat and bandana, Jerry Garcia's fabulous furry facial hair... Admittedly, this is how the director still dresses.

The activities among the audience include throwing off many of society's restrictions. Spontaneous nudity and skinny-dipping, open air love-making, legal highs, yoga... Notably, amongst the thousands of teenagers and twenty-somethings, very few are overweight and no-one obese. If anything, they're an exceptionally fit-looking crowd compared to nowadays.

I was also expecting a shambolic event, which it might have been by today's standards, partially because the numbers that turned up far exceeded expectations. But while organiser Mike Lang looks like a member of The Warriors, he's quietly keeping the whole show going, riding around the huge site on his motorbike. While unexpectedly popular, it wasn't a spontaneous 'happening' - it was a carefully planned concert. There are medical facilities and portaloos, just like today. Not even a storm blowing through (a dramatic scene) can stop the music for long.

It's an amazing crowd doing amazing things. I found the overwhelming, positive feeling from the event very uplifting. The organiser's attitude to money, declaring it all a free concert, happy that it's such a great happening, oblivious that it'll him lose millions of dollars, is a wonderful thing to see. A seismic shift from the usual view of the world.

Music-wise, I most enjoyed Sly and the Family Stone and the effortless, amazing guitar work of Jimi Hendrix. The energy of the first performer onscreen, Richie Havens, attacking his guitar, further demonstrates how unique many of these musicans still are. I was saddened to learn that he'd only just passed away in April. Havens' recent death contrasts with the performers who famously passed away the year after the concert, notably Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, both at the age of 27.

Between songs, and often seen simultaneously in a split screen, the rest of the event is documented. The helpfulness of local people and organisations in making it all happen. The interviews with local farmers, some for, some against. But a heartening support from some parents, some adults against the Vietnam war - proving that the kids weren't alone in their attitudes to war and peace. Even the local Chief of Police is happy with the good behaviour of such a huge crowd.

I'm sure it's not a totally balanced view, but the film doesn't shirk from the downsides - the dangers of drug use (there was an overdose fatality at the event), a woman freaking out because of the size of the crowd, the logistical problems as the huge event spreads out into neighbouring properties... I'm going to read more about it all in The Road To Woodstock and plough through the special edition extras, intrigued about everything that happened and how it all happened.

Screengrab: organiser Mike Lang interview / chaos on the roads
Defying my expectations, the blu-ray has great image quality. It was actually shot on 16mm, but by a squad of professional cinematographers, and then blown up onto 70mm negative! The amazing editing and splitscreen presentation, spread across the 2.35 frame, makes this a great cinematic experience. Sometimes a central 1.85 image, sometimes two, showing an interviewee on one side and what they're talking about on the other. A triple split with three angles of a performance onstage - most impressively realised when the images overlap and blend. Among the assistant directors and editors are one Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker (she later edited Raging Bull, Casino and many more).

My first ever watch was with this four-hour Director's Cut, though I didn't notice any padding, or differences in quality that gave away what was new. The Jefferson Airplane performance is part of the new footage included and it was great to hear singer Grace Slick in action. This Ultimate Collector's Edition blu-ray also includes a second disc with three hours of background documentaries and excised performances.

It's a testament to Michael Wadleigh and his crew, enduring a very difficult shoot (communication with the outside world was impossible for much of the event). The resulting quality is so good that it looks as if it was shot last week. If only it had been. I wish the optimistic, free-thinking, positive action, anti-war vibe was this strong today.

See also, my report on director Michael Wadleigh attending a screening of Wolfen.


  1. My favourite moment was probably the three naked guys walking down the road who sensibly explain that it was the easiest way to keep their clothes dry.
    The film then cuts to some guys sliding around in mud...I wonder what they did when it stopped raining?

  2. Great review; I almost got there...