Nothing better exemplifies the zenith of the hippe youth movement of the 1960s in the popular imagination than Woodstock. Officially billed as the Woodstock Music and Art Fair, the 3-day festival took place in August 1969 on a rolling 600-acre dairy farm just outside Bethel, New York, a sleepy town 100 miles northwest of New York City. Organized as a festival for 60,000 by four twenty-something entrepreneurs looking to make a small profit, the festival crowds swelled beyond all expectation to an estimated 400,000, with another quarter-million turned back or discouraged from attending by jammed roads and closed highways.
On the first day of the festival the 346-member paid security detail of off-duty NYC cops quit en masse, as hordes of ticketless young people tore down the fences and poured into the venue. Roads leading into Bethel quickly became hopelessly jammed clogging the flow of food and medical services in and preventing tired, hungry people from leaving even as torrential rains turned the venue into a muddy morass. Despite the potential for catastrophe, the authorities, organizers, and local community rallied, supplying impromptu kitchens and medical centers. Just as remarkable as the job done behind the scenes to provide essential services was the relaxed and positive attitude of the festival goers who never panicked or rioted.
More than thirty popular musical acts performed during the three days of Woodstock including Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix, The Who, Janis Joplin, CSN&Y, Jefferson Airplane, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Joan Baez, Santana, Sly & the Family Stone, Richie Havens, Country Joe & the Fish, Canned Heat, and Joe Cocker, but as impressive as this lineup was, notably absent were The Beatles, The Doors, and The Rolling Stones.
It was not the music or the circumstances alone that made Woodstock so iconic. The essential final ingredient was the remarkable documentation of the event created by filmmaker Michael Wadleigh: the Oscar-winning documentary feature film Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace and Music, which Warner Home Video is again commemorating with new DVD and Blu-ray releases on the eve of the 40th anniversary of the festival.
With only days of preparation before the festival, Wadleigh assembled a film crew of nearly one hundred. As many as fourteen cameras ran up to twelve hours a day shooting 69 miles of 16mm film capturing the musical performances and larger human drama in nearly equal measure. The three-hour theatrical release of Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace and Music managed to show audiences almost eight hours of footage by utilizing split screens with as many as three segments running simultaneously across a 2.20:1 screen.
Wadleigh's Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace and Music was a rave critical and popular success that not only boosted the careers of its crew, including a young assistant director by the name of Martin Scorsese, and its subjects (especially the previously unknown musical comedy troupe Sha Na Na), but it's also credited with saving Warner Bros. from dissolution.
In 1994, the film was expanded to a 228-minute director's cut. The director's cut which is the only version to make it to DVD, featured a performance by Janis Joplin for the first time, and included additional or expanded performances from Canned Heat, Jefferson Airplane, and Jimi Hendrix.
This Blu-ray release is 1080p/24 VC-1 encoded from a 2k scan of original 16mm elements. To compensate for the qualitative limitations of 16mm film, the original 70mm theatrical release of Woodstock used an innovative mix of single 1.85:1 letterbox and multiple split-screen to fill the 2.20:1 frame. This framing is faithfully retained on this release of the director's cut.
This new Blu-ray release looks an order of magnitude better than the 1997 DVD release, but I suspect that some of the desaturation and softness that appears on this new release is attributable to DNR. I suspect that a side-by-side comparison would reveal a lot more grain in the theatrical release than appears here.
This Blu-ray release offers a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 lossless mix which probably sounds about as good as presently possible given the limitations of the original analog 8-track recording setup which was orchestrated from a remote sound truck. Not only do the original recordings have inconsistent fidelity but also the limited numbers of tracks available for recording and the variable setup of equipment meant inconsistent coverage of the musicians with some instruments and backup artists seen but not heard. Despite all this, the audio quality is appealing, even if not stellar.
The plentiful extras packed into this release are a mixed bag. Some such as the 60+ page reprint of Life magazine's 1969 coverage along with the additional disc of musical performances and behind-the-scenes recollections, described in greater detail below, add value while others such as the promo video for the Museum at Bethel Woods, the fringed buckskin display case, the Lucite lenticular paperweight, the iron-on Woodstock logo patch, and the many paper inserts are, arguably, merely trifles added to justify the substantial $69.99 MSRP.
Beyond the trinkets listed above, the meat of the extras can be found on the second Blu-ray disc. Skipping over the commercial for the Museum at Bethel Woods, viewers can customize a video playlist from eighteen additional Woodstock performances (1080p/24, 1.33:1; DD 5.1) by Joan Baez ("One Day at a Time"), County Joe McDonald ("Flying High"), Santana ("Evil Ways"), Canned Heat ("On the Road Again" and "I'm Her Man"), Mountain ("Beside the Sea" and "Southbound Train"), Grateful Dead ("Turn on Your Love Light"), Creedence Clearwater Revival ("Born on the Bayou", "I Put a Spell on You", and "Keep on Chooglin'") The Who ("We're Not Gonna Take It", and "My Generation"), Jefferson Airplane (3/5 of a Mile in 10 Seconds"), Johnny Winter ("Mean Town Blues"), Paul Butterfield ("Morning Sunshine"), and Sha Na Na ("Teen Angel"). Due to technical problems with the original audio, some of these performances were partially dubbed for this release using performances recorded well after Woodstock. While I understand why this was done, it would have been nice had this release included as an alternative option either the best available original recording or a commentary track explaining the decision and what was and wasn't re-recorded.
Also included on the second disc are five minutes of opening and closing festival clips (1080p/24, 1.33:1, DD 5.1) and seventy-seven minutes of reflective featurettes from many of the surviving filmmakers, festival producers, and musicians (1080p/24, 1.78:1, DD 5.1). The majority of the segments cover the making of the film itself and principally feature director Michael Wadleigh and associate producer Dale Bell, but assistant director Martin Scorsese, editor Thelma Schoonmaker and others also weigh in. Festival producer Michael Lang (who looks the least aged of anybody) reflects on the festival itself, and several of the surviving musicians discuss their recollections and the impact of the film on their careers. The second disc is rounded out with a short feature on the provision of food and social services by Wavy Gravy's Hog Farm Commune, and excerpts from Michael Wadleigh's 1970 appearance on Hugh Hefner's TV talk show Playboy After Dark to promote the film.
Originally released on DVD August 22, 1997, the director's cut of Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace and Music was among the first DVDs commercially available in North America. Now, some twelve years later, Warner Home Video has re-released this essential film again on DVD and, for the first time, Blu-ray. Woodstock looks and sounds so much better that an upgrade is highly recommended for anybody that still owns and cherishes the old DVD. However, while DVD buyers now have the option of a standard two-disc DVD release ($24.98 MSRP) or a three-disc Ultimate Collector's Edition ($59.98 MSRP) complete with all the kitsch described above, North American Blu-ray disc buyers were only offered the trinket-laden Ultimate Collector's Edition ($69.99 MSRP). Had Warner offered the option of a standard Blu-ray version comparable to that provided to the Brits (£22.98 MSRP), there'd be little cause to complain, but as it is the consumer who doesn't go in for the kitsch may want to consider whether the unwanted trinkets are worth the steep price.