Some perspective: I first saw Woodstock, 3 Days of Peace & Music (1970), the movie commonly known simply as Woodstock, around 1980. Back then, the seminal 1969 music festival seemed very much a part of the recent past, even though the sixties revolution had done a virtual 180 by then, what with the election of Ronald Reagan and the rise of the "Me Generation" culture of narcissism (an attitude reflected perhaps unintentionally in Lawrence Kasdan's 1983 film The Big Chill: It was okay to forsake one's counterculture values for personal gain, so long as one listens to that era's music and feel guilty about it once in a blue moon.)
Now, however, Woodstock is as distant for today's youth as Al Jolson, Paul Whiteman, and Cliff "Ukelele Ike" Edwards must have been for Woodstock's generation. It's odd to think of Woodstock's audience as retirees and grandparents.
When it was new, Woodstock's appeal was primarily as a one-of-a-kind concert movie. Bob Dylan, The Byrds, John Lennon*, The Doors, Frank Zappa and other obvious big-name acts may have been absent for one reason or another, but this proved a blessing in disguise as it made room for more varied and debatably interesting talent in addition to the big names that did show up: Joan Baez, Canned Heat, The Who, Jimi Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane, etc. (I do wish the organizers had stuck with their original plan, however, to have Roy Rogers close the festival with a performance of "Happy Trails (To You).")
Today, however, Woodstock is as much, perhaps even more interesting as a document of those times. When I first saw Woodstock back in 1980, cultural references to that era were still being dominated by movies and (especially) reruns of shows from the late 1960s. Series like Dragnet, Star Trek, The Lucy Show, The Brady Bunch, et. al. all did their fair share of "hippie" episodes, and all of them got the movement hilariously oh-so-wrong.
Woodstock, conversely, partly because of its deliberate pacing and intelligent and equal interest in the festival's concert goers as much as its artists, captures the era perhaps better than any movie before or since. Even if performers like Ravi Shankar and Sly and the Family Stone aren't your cup of tea, people-watching the crowds, the organizers at work, and the locals reacting to the huge throngs of people swarming their normally quiet little Catskills farming community is immensely entertaining.
For its 40th Anniversary, Warner Home Video released two versions of the film to Blu-ray, one a plain-wrap (or, more accurately, plainer-wrap) package containing the film and some supplements, and an Amazon-exclusive "Ultimate Collector's Edition" loaded with extra stuff but also costing $129.95 when it was new. This new release, ballsily billed as "40th Anniversary Revisited," is apparently even more "ultimate," with material then presented in standard-def on prior releases now bumped up to high-definition, and with some new material, though much of it appears to be identical to the Amazon-exclusive edition.
The Woodstock Music & Art Fair was a three-day event held on Max Yasgur's dairy farm in the town of Bethel, New York in mid-August 1969. Something like 50,000 guests were expected, but instead an audience of 400,000 turned up for the remarkably peaceful and orderly (by the concert-goers) if chaotic (because of the unexpected crowds) and overwhelmed show, marred only slightly by long stretches of rain and not nearly enough toilets. The for-profit event originally offered advance tickets at just $18 for the entire weekend, but when more than twice as many people showed up compared to the number of tickets sold, the organizers, fearing a riot and already scrambling to finish the building of the large stage, opted to cut down the fence the night before the concert, effecting turning Woodstock into a "free concert." As a result, its investors ultimately lost money, around $1.5 million.
Conversely, Woodstock the movie was a huge and unexpected hit for Warner Bros., costing just $600,000 to produce against earnings of more than $50 million. (It was the sixth highest-grossing film of 1970.) Akron-born cinematographer Michael Wadleigh directed the Oscar-winning film (for Best Documentary). Despite this, Wadleigh directed just one other feature, the odd Wolfen (1981).
Woodstock was first released at 184 minutes, but expanded to 225 minutes (three and three-quarter hours long) in 1994, and remixed first for Dolby 5.1 in 2009, then again for Dolby TrueHD for this release. The longer cut mainly adds additional numbers by performers already seen in the film (Janis Joplin, Hendrix, etc.) rather than make room for those cut from the original release version, such as The Band, The Grateful Dead, and Credence. Presumably, some of these were not included due to rights issues. (Neil Young famously refused to appear in the film, even though his band does.)
This reviewer loves some of Woodstock's music, not so much some of the others acts. Viewers won't lose points for opting to chapter-skip those performances he or she doesn't care for.
Watching Woodstock again for only the second time I found myself much more interested in watching the organizers scrambling to hold it all together with spit and paste, and especially ordinary concert goers reacting to their once-in-a-lifetime experience as well as those of the bemused local community unprepared for the onslaught of humanity.
In reality, locals were generally quite displeased, with Yasgur refusing to rent out his farm for subsequent festivals, and the town of Bethel running the city supervisor who brought the festival there out on a rail. The movie, however, paints a different portrait. An old man extolls the politeness of the young concert goers, whose numbers even include a bunch of nuns, one who flashes a peace sign for the cameras.
The movie is also beguilingly frank yet basically apolitical in honestly depicting both the festival's many logistical problems, and counterculture attitudes toward sex and drug use. One amusing public service announcement heard over the loudspeakers amusingly offers this assurance about some of the LSD being passed around: "It's not poisoned, it's just bad acid. If you're experimenting, take half a tab instead."
Video & Audio
Woodstock was exhibited in what was billed as "Multiscreen," basically a 2.35:1 anamorphic format. Most of the film alternates between a single image with a ratio of about 1.85:1 with other scenes offering two images simultaneously split down the middle, using the full ‘scope ratio. It's not clear to this reviewer how much of Woodstock was shot in 16mm and how much, if any, is 35mm, but regardless the image is generally okay, probably about as good as it's ever going to look, keeping in mind all of the lab work required for all those split screen shots. I do wish the 1.85:1 single-image scenes had been reformatted to fit most or all of the 1.78:1 high-definition frame instead of as they appear on the Blu-ray, severely windowboxed and rather small, especially since that format dominates the film. Also worth noting is that, again probably due to legal restrictions, the subtitle options (in English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Japanese, German, Cantonese, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, Italian, Korean, Norwegian, Polish, Swedish, and Thai) do not subtitle any song lyrics, but rather only the dialogue. The Dolby TrueHD remix, however, does sound spectacularly good, especially when compared to the original theatrical mono mix. The disc is region-free.
This release includes two extra Blu-ray discs resulting in what's billed as nine hours worth of film footage from Woodstock. As noted above most of this material has been released before, but here presented in high-def for the first time. Included on Disc 2 are Woodstock: From Festival to Feature, 21 short featurettes (as mandated by union regulations these days) totaling 77 minutes and covering various aspects of the production; Untold Stories (143 minutes), 18 songs by 13 artists not included in either cut of the film but presented here in high-def; outtakes of the Festival Opening and Closing; and the self-explanatory The Museum at Bethel Woods: The Story of the Sixties & Woodstock. Disc 3 offers the catch-all Woodstock: From Festival to Feature Revisited; Untold Stories Revisited offers yet more music, this time 16 songs by 12 artists, and that's followed by another visit to The Museum at Bethel Woods.
Finally, the set is further supplemented with some interesting paper material, including original ticket reproductions, newspaper clippings, a reprint of a Life magazine article and, off all silly things, an iron-on Woodstock patch. Groovy.
I suppose we're in store for a 50th Anniversary Ultimate Revisited Remastered Edition(in DolbyVision, perhaps) in 2019, but for now, this Woodstock is an exhaustive, endlessly fascinating boxed set, a DVD Talk Collector Series title.
* The Beatles had not yet disbanded, but among them Lennon alone reportedly expressed interest, on the condition wife Yoko Ono and her band could perform as well.