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Cultural pundits since Spiro Agnew has been citing The Woodstock Festival as some kind of test for flower-power phonies, with the ultimate anti-hippie slur being that anybody one meets who claims to have been there is a liar. Our parents regarded Woodstock The Phenomenon with fearful eyes, seeing only mud, chaos, drugs and public lewdness. We kids around the country knew better, having been mesmerized by Michael Wadleigh's 70mm split-screen multi-channel super-documentary. After years of Vietnam and negative media coverage of anything to do with rock music or youth culture, Woodstock was a blast of nonviolent nirvana.
In the late 1960s we kids clung to our FM radios to hear music. The only glimpse of rock celebs on TV were brief appearances on shows like Shindig, where embarrassed-looking groups would lip-synch to the sanitized top-40 versions of their songs. Those lucky enough to find Monterey Pop at least saw what a concert appearance by Janis Joplin or Joan Baez looked like. The makers of Woodstock clearly saw the technical weaknesses of the earlier docu and mounted a production equal to the task -- a full multi-track recording system and a battery of synchronized cameras.
Michael Wadleigh is correct in stating that his show is much more than a recorded concert. The music in Woodstock is fantastic in itself, but the docu cameramen capture the totality of the event, from the traffic jams coming into Bethel, New York to the monumental task of caring for the needs of hundreds of thousands of concert-goers. Performers are filmed point blank with wide-angle lenses, putting the audience right on stage with the performers and up close with the name bands. Sly Stone's stomping music machine envelops the audience and carries it away in a blast of trumpets and dancing: "Higher!" Spreading the multiple 16mm images across a 70mm screen enables a performance to be seen from more than one angle simultaneously, without cuts. Audience reactions can be interwoven into the rhythm without interrupting the action on stage.
Woodstock the music festival outpaced its initial plan almost immediately, when six times the promised 50,000 attendees poured into Bethel, New York. The main conflict in Woodstock the movie is between the disaster that should have occurred, and the almost completely peaceful result. Food, film stock and last-minute talent must be airlifted in. Local law enforcement and residents do a marvelous job of coping with what to them must have looked like a refugee crisis -- you can bet the festival gave birth to a thousand new restrictive local ordinances. The documentary miracle is that Woodstock captures the entire 'scope of the event -- including its rough edges.
Woodstock ended up being a Perfect Storm for the filmmakers, who on the first day saw the enormity of what was happening and put out a call for more cameramen, more film, more everything. While the mixing recordists worked feverishly to get all the music on tape, the camera corps had a constant supply of subject matter to film: stars, the crowd, the backstage chaos and a torrential rainstorm.
Director Wadleigh asserts that musical acts and individual songs were included in the final cut based not on their pop status but on their lyrical contribution to the whole -- even at three-plus hours, Woodstock has a strong through-line instead of lurching from performer to performer. The variety of the performers stretches from Richie Havens' rhythms to Joan Baez' high notes, to Joe Cocker's spasms and Country Joe's insolence. The intimate coverage puts one-guitar, one-voice Arlo Guthrie on an equal basis with The Who. Sha Na Na is something of a sideshow joke, but the debut of Crosby Stills & Nash marks a changeover to mellow, acoustic 70s rock.
For us kids that were seeing their radio favorites for the first time, the live-performance personalities in Woodstock were a revelation. Joe Cocker's air guitar gyrations were simply fantastic. Joan Baez's call to her imprisoned husband and Country Joe's four-letter opinion of the Vietnam War brought politics to the forefront. Watching John Sebastian grin and jive through his appearance, obviously stoned on something, stood in contrast to the trance-like concentration of Ten Years After's Alvin Lee. Jimi Hendrix brings things to an end with a guitar that blasts out music like an Angel's fiery sword ... with perhaps the best rendition ever of The Star Spangled Banner. Woodstock enveloped its audience in a concert experience that hasn't been replicated since.
Seeing Wadleigh's film again forty years later reminds us what we should have known at the time, that Woodstock marked the end of the era of innocence in rock music. Altamont removed the illusion of nonviolence, and the corporate music industry's rush to gain control of pop legends put a dollar $ sign on what should have been a shared cultural treasure -- as indicated by George Harrison's frustrated attempt to produce a charity concert only two years later. Despite its cultural detractors, Woodstock stands apart from the hype and profiteering, and remains a shining citadel of the Peace and Music generation.
Warner Home Entertainment has brought out a variety of 40th-Anniversary Editions of Michael Wadleigh's Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace & Music Director's Cut. The standard DVD edition spreads the movie over two discs (with an unwelcome Intermission card reading, "Interfuckingmission" -- was that there originally?). It's the longer Director's Cut the reinstates about 40 minutes of performances, adding Janis Joplin and The Jefferson Airplane, as well as extending other acts, most notably Jimi Hendrix's set. As 224 minutes with an intermission isn't a problem for home viewing, the longer version is welcome.
The only extra on the basic DVD is a commercial for The Museum at Bethel Woods entitled The Story of the Sixties & Woodstock. Forty seconds of montage editing leads to a three-minute plug for Bethel's homegrown effort to tame the Sixties generation into a tourist attraction. A bearded ex- hippie assures us that it's like stepping into a time machine!
A larger Ultimate Collector's Edition DVD set is available that includes a selection of odd text and keepsake bonus features -- a 60-page LIFE magazine commemorative issue reprint, a Lucite scene display piece, festival memorabilia reprints, etc., plus two discs of additional extras. One of these is an Amazon exclusive with more footage of The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, and Country Joe and the Fish, and more featurettes.
For Blu-ray owners, the only option is a seventy-dollar 2-disc set that replicates the DVD Ultimate Edition. Reviewers given only the basic DVD to cover were also given, separately, a disc with the basic extras from the Ultimate Edition. The disc includes performances by 12 acts, mostly edited "straight" without evidence that they were ever part of a completed cut: Joan Baez, Country Joe McDonald, Santana, Canned Heat, Mountain, Grateful Dead, Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Who, Jefferson Airplane, Joe Cocker, Johnny Winter, Paul Butterfield and Sha Na Na.
For a real documentary, we're given a mini-docu "featurette gallery", each consisting of interview footage and film clips. Director Wadleigh and Associate Producer Dale Bell are the main players, explaining the basis of Woodstock as a documentary (not a concert film) and detailing the modular Éclair cameras used in the filming -- Wadleigh manned one himself and remembers being able to switch to his preferred fixed wide-angle lens in less than three seconds. Other interviewees range from essential (concert producer Michael Lang, still looking good) to inarticulate (a member of Sha Na Na), while vocal attendees and concert organizers proudly profess their counterculture credentials forty years later. Of the performers offering thoughtful memories, Michael Carabello of Santana is particularly good. For some insane reason Hugh Hefner has been brought into the mix as an imaginary expert on the 1960s; he's quick to assert that he was spiritually part of the Woodstock vibe by virtue of his interest in jazz music.
Barely justified is an added piece with Hefner that includes excerpts from his Playboy After Dark TV show. Hef holds court in a phony living room set surrounded by 'typical partygoers', each with a vacant-looking beauty on his arm. Sunk halfway into a plush sofa, director Wadleigh does manage one choice statement to counter the "shocking" charges of godless drug use at Woodstock: Try assembling a few hundred average citizens together with a generous supply of beer, and see how peaceful that would be!
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace & Music 40th Anniversary Director's Cut rates:
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