Nearly 40 years after its theatrical release, Michael Wadleigh's Woodstock remains the titan of rock documentaries. Few docus, rock or otherwise, can approach its ability to immerse audiences in a particular place and time. Now, those crafty capitalists at Warner Home Video have capitalized on the 40th anniversary of that seminal music festival with a tchotchke-stuffed three-disc package, Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace & Music Director's Cut (40th Anniversary Ultimate Collector's Edition) .
Held over three days in August, 1969, just outside the rolling farmlands of Bethel, N.Y., the Woodstock music festival showcased some of the best rock and folk of that decade, including the Who; Jimi Hendrix; Janis Joplin; Sly and the Family Stone; Crosby, Stills and Nash; Joe Cocker; Santana; Creedence Clearwater Revival; the Grateful Dead; Joan Baez; Arlo Guthrie; Country Joe & the Fish and many others.
But the event transcended that of rock 'n' roll spectacle. It drew an estimated 400,000 people -- far eclipsing what its organizers had anticipated -- to become an iconic touchstone in an era of unparalleled social upheaval. The young people across the country who attended endured rain, mud, food shortages and poor sanitation, but the tradeoff was worth the countercultural bliss. In many respects, Woodstock proved to be the final hurrah for a generation that believed it could change the world.
For historical purposes alone, Woodstock would be worthwhile viewing. But director Michael Wadleigh possessed the ambition, vision and skill to do it right. Armed with a gaggle of hungry young moviemakers (including a then-unknown Martin Scorsese), Wadleigh employed 16 cameras to record more than 100 miles of celluloid. The result, an overwhelming mass of sights and sounds, proved ideal for generous use of split screens. The effect brilliantly conveys the full-blown Woodstock experience -- the music, traffic jams, drugs, mud, skinny-dipping and, of course, the bad brown acid that prompted a warning from the stage. Used in Woodstock several years before split screens would become a cliché of Seventies cinema, the multiple images give Wadleigh leeway to make ironic visual juxtapositions and sly observations.
The music is great, and the performances are enhanced by unusually intimate camerawork. While modern-day rockumentaries typically trade in quick edits and stylistic gimmickry, Wadleigh prefers long, uninterrupted shots. Richie Havens' two numbers that are showcased, "Handsome Johnny" and "Freedom / Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child," are nearly hypnotic in their intensity. The Who, Joe Cocker, Sly and the Family Stone and Ten Years After are equally riveting, while Hendrix's guitar assault on "The Star-Spangled Banner" remains one of rock 'n' roll's singular milestones. Even the lesser performances are fascinating. A clearly stoned John Sebastian provides some laughably hippie-dippy chatter before launching into "Younger Generation," which at least gave the filmmakers an opportunity to do a montage of Woodstock babies and toddlers.
Still, what makes the Oscar-winning film resonate 40 years later is the time that the cameras spend away from the stage. The Sixties' youth movement is captured for posterity, in all its irony-free, tiedyed, psychedelic, hair-flapping, glassy-eyed idealism. Many of the young people interviewed are inadvertently hilarious. One conspiracy-minded young man blames the rain on governmental cloud-seeding. A yoga instructor promises her pupils, "If you do it right, you'll be flashing momentarily. The outpouring of naiveté and enthusiasm, even if pot-addled, is curiously endearing.
The 228-minute director's cut, first released back in 1994, adds about 45 minutes to an already-lengthy movie. Woodstock aficionados won't mind the additional couch time. Included in the extended version are performances by Canned Heat (great), Joplin (not one of her best showings) and Jefferson Airplane (so-so), as well as Hendrix tearing through "Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)."
Three discs are housed in thin, brightly illustrated cardboard sleeves housed in a cardboard box that, in turn, fits comfortably inside a fake-suede fringe slipcover. The director's version is split over two DVDS, with extras slapped on the third disc.
The remastered 70mm print preserves Woodstock's inventive blend of single and multiple screens that fill the 2.20:1 aspect ratio. Details are strong and colors are bold. Sure, there is slight grain and the occasional scratch here and there, but such signs of age only heighten the retro appeal.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 is first-rate. The audio is crisp and clear, with immersive sound and judicious use of rear speakers, such as the whoosh of the helicopters that transported musicians to and from the stage.
Optional subtitles are available in Spanish, French, Portuguese, Japanese and Thai.
The bulk of extras is on the third disc. Woodstock: From Festival to Feature. Boasting an aggregate running time of one hour and 16 minutes, the 21-part featurette has interviews with Wadleigh, associate producer Dale Bell, Scorsese, editor Thelma Schoonmaker and Wavy Gravy, among others. Among the musicians showing up for quickie interviews are Johnny Winter and members of Santana, Ten Years After and Sha Na Na.
While the material truthfully would have been better-served as a single retrospective instead of chopped into these mini-segments, viewers will still find some wonderful anecdotes. Festival executive producer Michael Lang notes that he really wanted Roy Rogers and Dale Evans to close the festival with "Happy Trails to You," but the couple, not surprisingly, declined. Woodstock announcer Chip Munk explains his nuanced language when it came to warning folks about the brown acid ("The brown acid ... is not specifically too good").
Falling under the Festival to Feature umbrella is The Hog Farm Commune, which offers an overview of the California commune that helped feed festival-goers. Among the more offbeat extras is Hugh Hefner and Michael Wadleigh: A Woodstock Connection. In this 1970 segment from TV's short-lived "Playboy After Dark," Hef and then-girlfriend Barbi Benton interview Woodstock's director. As compelling as the interview are Hefner's waxwork-like hangers-on whose job evidently was to stand around and look sexily aloof. Or is it aloofly sexy?
Woodstock: Untold Stories collects 18 concert performances that failed to make the director's cut. At least some of the numbers have sound that was dubbed in after the fact. A few of the segments are terrific, particularly the Who's "We're Not Gonna Take It," CCR's "I Put a Spell on You" and Mountain's contributions ("Beside the Sea" and "Southbound Train").
Other bonus tracks include Joan Baez, "One Day at a Time"; Country Joe McDonald, "Flying High"; Santana, "Evil Ways"; Canned Heat, "I'm Her Man" and "On the Road Again"; the Grateful Dead, "Turn on Your Love Light"; and CCR, "Born on the Bayou" and "Keep on Chooglin.'" Still lost to the ages, sadly enough: The Band. Total running time is nearly 150 minutes.
Of the ample non-video extras, easily the most interesting is a reprint of Life magazine's 1969 special edition covering the Woodstock festival. It is packed with stories and photos, but the small text precludes it from being very user-friendly.
Other stuff: disc One has The Museum at Bethel Woods: The Story of the Sixties at Woodstock, a ho-hum promotional spot hosted by Living Colour's Vernon Reid. It runs four minutes and 34 seconds. The special edition also includes such knickknacks as a Lucite paperweight, iron-on logo patch, Woodstock fact sheet and reproductions of actual handwritten notes and a three-day ticket.
If you already own the DVD of Woodstock's director's cut, you might want to weigh if the bonus material justifies a double-dip. The documentary itself, a wonderful time capsule of a pivotal time in modern history, certainly warrants inclusion in any serious DVD collection. Warner Home Video has tossed in the bells and whistles for this 40th anniversary edition, but the most intriguing extras come down to the retrospective and 18 additional performances. Highly recommended.