Woodstock. The very word has come to represent many things - hippies, the late sixties, festivals, music, peace, drugs, Star-Spangled Banner, the list is endless. The youthful 'Woodstock' generation garnered much criticism in the eighties when they grew up to become the thirtysomething generation of cut-throat yuppies, which seemed to ultimately ridicule everything the hippies stood for. However, watching Woodstock, with its free love, drugs and music, it's hard to detect any potential conservative capitalists.
For those unsure about Woodstock and what it actually is, here's some background information. Set up by four young enthusiastic entrepreneurs, the 'Woodstock Music and Art Fair' was held in August 1969 (the 15th till the 18th) and approximately drew an audience of just under a half of a million people to the surrounding fields of Max Yasgur's farm in Sullivan County. For four days, the site became a cultural phenomenon in which a city was unofficially formed and then disbanded. This 'city' had its own (lack of) laws, which were freely decided by the spirit of the community and not high-ranking figures. This manmade 'city' was a four-day celebration of liberal open-mindedness, free drug taking and excessively free and promiscuous sex. The festival attracted so many descendants to Sullivan County that it ended up forcing the closure of the New York State Thruway, which resulted in the creation of one of the nation's worst ever traffic jams and the festival then being declared a 'disaster zone'. It also inspired a glut of local laws designed to prevent the likes of Woodstock ever happening again. Because of the vast underestimating of the amount of people travelling to the festival, the financial backers were forced to change the status of Woodstock to a free festival.
Together with producer Bob Maurice, the director of the documentary that became Woodstock, Michael Wadleigh, patched together a production team just before the festival started, on the hunch that the event would grow to become something more than a typical weekend concert. An editing team headed by Thelma Schoonmaker and Martin Scorsese then thanklessly streamlined the miles and miles of footage into a three hour plus film. That version went on to win Best Documentary at the 1970 Oscars ceremony. This version is the director's cut, with over forty minutes of added footage, and is titled Woodstock: Three Days Of Peace & Music.
It's difficult to expertly conjure up the experience of Woodstock to those that have never witnessed the documentary. What makes the film a much more interesting concert time-capsule compared to others such as Monterey Pop, Gimme Shelter or Message To Love, is the fact that you instantly sense the notion that no-one, from performers to festival-goers, knew what they were involved in. It was a festival with no script, no pre-determined heroes. Essentially, it was a tacit battle between each band to attempt to render themselves more legendary than the others.
As a documentary, Woodstock aims to do two things: to record as much fantastic music as it can as a treat for the unfortunate souls unable to attend; and to provide social comment on America (in particular its ongoing trouble with Vietnam), using the festival as a sort of antithesis to society. Fortunately, Wadleigh assesmbled a camera crew that was given full access to the music, and Woodstock therefore became the most innovative concert documentary of its time with its multi-angle shots and powerful imagery. Woodstock is also truly compelling due to its wonderful interviews with festival-goers, who mostly seem too high on the spirit of hippie life to realise that the festival will end in three days.
Musically, Woodstock lacked Dylan, The Stones, The Beatles, The Doors, The Velvet Underground, Jeff Beck (cancelled at the last hour) and even Joni Mitchell, whose name seems synonymously linked to the festival due to her song Woodstock (featured on the Ladies Of The Canyon album). Mitchell arrived late at the festival, and was flown out because traffic blocked her entry; her management fearing she would be unable to leave in time to meet a pre-arranged television appearance. Despite the lack of these super names, Woodstock still bristled with enough talent of its own.
The fearless Richie Havens was the first man on stage at the festival, and he almost manages to render everything else irrelevant with just his acoustic guitar. Havens provides such energy and intense passion to his performance of Handsome Johnny that it's no surprise he has to stop to repair his guitar strings. It's very gutsy of the film to show this warts-and-all treatment, as it further exemplifies the concept of Woodstock presenting a man-made nation, in which everyone, including the performers, are human and equal. Canned Heat's swampy rock number A Change Is Gonna Come goes on forever and loses interest early on (it never made it into the original cut of the film). It's no wonder the producers used Canned Heat's studio version of Going Up The Country on the soundtrack, as their live version was appallingly bad and is thankfully not presented. Joan Baez shows she was as big a believer in the hippie ethic as everyone else; promoting the cause of her activist husband who refused the Vietnam draft. Baez plods through two numbers, and thankfully then moves aside for the first great rock performance of the film - The Who. Although folklore of Woodstock states that the film contains Townshend, Daltry, Entwhistle and Moon performing We're Not Gonna Take It, it's more accurately an edited performance in which the four are shown performing See Me, Feel Me / Listening To You. This finale from Tommy is blistering in its full frontal rock attack to the senses, and it is no surprise that the film helped cement The Who's godlike status amongst rock bands. Townshend is so ferocious on guitar in his white boiler suit you'd think he was the inspiration for Alex's persona in Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange. It is The Who's performance that truly shows off the splendid editing of Woodstock, with the full array of effects from split-screen, stop and slow motion to multi-angled cuts. To top it all off, The Who then perform Eddie Cochran's Summertime Blues, suggesting they can even pick up someone else's number and run with it.
Even though The Beatles weren't at the festival, they still manage to leave their mark. Sheffield blue-collar worker Joe Cocker stumbles on stage and delivers arguably one of the greatest cover versions of all time, in his epic rendition of With A Little Help From My Friends. Cocker's performance is so ballistic and yet soulful, that he's almost possessed by the music. As soon as Cocker finishes, the heavens open, as if they waited in order not to ruin the show. Sha-Na-Na, Country Joe & The Fish and Arlo Guthrie immortalise themselves with fine performances, and the one of the highlights of Woodstock, Crosby, Stills & Nash deliver a fantastic blissful harmony of Judy Blue Eyes, as if they are the eye of the hurricane. Ten Years After impress with their lengthy solos, and two unreleased Jefferson Airplane numbers are shown. John Sebastian seems unfazed by appearing in front of hundreds of thousands of people; you can tell this is the man who wrote Daydream for The Lovin' Spoonful. Country Joe McDonald returns and sparks up Vietnam protest with his famous Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-To-Die Rag, which is the only song to warrant singing along to apparently, as the editors have included subtitles for those who aren't yet caught up in the anti-Vietnam movement. Santana, Sly & The Family Stone and Janis Joplin deliver numbers that continue their already huge reputations, but by then, everyone's waiting for Hendrix.
Because of the trouble with traffic and delays, Jimi Hendrix and his makeshift band (now that the Experience was all but defunct) had to deliver their set on Monday morning as opposed to the headline Sunday evening slot. By then, most of the festival-goers had returned to the normality of their day jobs, and thus only fifty thousand or so remained. This didn't matter, as Hendrix delivered his most memorable live performance ever, more so than his burning-guitar antics at Monterey Pop. It's interesting to note that Hendrix's best songs were the ones performed in an extended jam-encore. After the proper setlist, Hendrix delivered an explosive array of Voodoo Chile, Purple Haze and of course his own unique instrumental version of The Star Spangled Banner, which managed to say more about 1969 USA than any words can express. A year or so later, Hendrix would be dead.
Woodstock is slightly manipulative however. The performers are shown out of chronological order (Sha Na Na actually appeared just before Hendrix) and many classic acts have been ommitted altogether, possibly due to license restrictions. Where are The Band, Melanie, Tim Hardin, Johnny Winter and Creedence Clearwater Revival? Where are the infamous incidents such as The Grateful Dead's gig being cut short by torrential rain, or famed activist Abbie Hoffman being attacked by Pete Townshend when he foolishly invaded the stage before Pinball Wizard? Maybe they are kept buried amongst the other hours of footage.
As a concert movie and statement of America during the turbulent late sixties period, Woodstock is priceless and perfect, from its multitude of classic sixties music to its naïve idealism of the hippie movement in full swing. It's long, breathtaking and completely divorced from our society, rendering it essential viewing indeed.
Academy Awards 1970
Best Documentary Feature
Academy Award Nominations 1970
Best Film Editing - Thelma Schoonmaker
Best Sound - Larry Johnson, Dan Wallin
Because of the dazzling visual editing trickery that was applied to the film, and the use of multi-camera setups, Woodstock fluctuates between different aspect ratios throughout. Although the ratio is never less than 2:1, it does change drastically between that and 2.35:1, not to mention letterboxed 1.85:1. Luckily, the transfer is presented with anamorphic enhancement, and is released on a single-sided disc as opposed to a flipper that graced the Region 1 version. Because of the wide use of different ratios and footage, image quality is inconsistent throughout, but never detracts from proceedings. Occasionally, minor defects (grain/artefacts) can be detected, and at most times the transfer is very sharp, if slightly dull-coloured.
Although Woodstock has been available in six track stereo before, this DVD contains a new 5.1 digital remix, and this mix is similar to the picture with regards to its inconsistency. Some sound events are dynamic and rich in spatial channelling, others are tinny and mono in design. On the whole, the sound mix pushes the Woodstock experience to a high level of atmospheric excellence, and complements the film tremendously.
Menu: A silent, static menu incorporating a few promotional shots from the film.
Packaging: The usual Warner Brothers snapper case, with a stylish cover shot and chapter listings restricted to the inner side of the cardboard casing.
Sadly, no extras are included on this release, which is a shame considering the abundance of documentaries and essays that have been produced over the years on the subject of Woodstock and its cultural importance.
Ranked alongside Gimme Shelter, Stop Making Sense and The Last Waltz as the greatest concert movie ever made, Woodstock is as fascinating as a social study as it is an enjoyable rock festival movie. Warner have released it on a technically good but barebones disc, which has given it a low RRP. Therefore, the three-and-a-half hour running time presents good value for money.