The Woodstock Festival of 1969 was much more than a concert, unintentionally becoming the symbol of the decade’s youth/hippie movement shortly before it came to an end. The potential those “3 [August] Days of Peace & Music” offered was so appealing at that time in the United States it spoke to hundreds of thousands of people, inspiring them to descend on Max Yasgur’s farm in Bethel, New York, to take part in the festivities.
The event lives on through Michael Wadleigh’s excellent Academy Award-winning film, which documented the experience as well as the medium could allow. Wadleigh and his team of cameramen captured not just a portion of the musical performances on stage but presented points of view ranging from the workers behind the scenes to the attendees down in the mud.
This home video release celebrates the 40th anniversary of the event (the film came out a year later in 1970), and the 15th anniversary of the director’s cut extended to a run time of 225 minutes. The first disc goes right into the film as preparations are underway. The organizers talk with a reporter as the stage and rigging are being set up. The local townsfolk seem to appreciate the business brought about by the initial “influx of humanity,” some of whom have slack-jawed, deeply focused stares moving past anything taking place in front of them.
The famous announcement warning the attendees about the brown acid is heard and then Richie Havens and his acoustic guitar open the concert. It’s refreshing to watch him play and sing in such long, uncut segments during “Handsome Johnny.” Modern-day editors should be mandated to watch and learn from the work of Thelma Schoonmaker and Martin Scorsese on display.
People are shown sneaking in and breaking down fences. The organizers decide to make Woodstock a free concert, but they don’t have much choice in the matter. Since they don’t have the security to handle the problem, it’s not as noble a decision as they make it out to be. In a parallel, some audience member jumps on stage while Canned Heat plays. He starts hugging lead singer Bob “The Bear” Hite, and even bums a smoke off him.
A couple of kids are interviewed and it’s interesting to hear the way they see the world. This happens periodically through the film as it steps away from the music and puts the audience front and center. One girl has lost her sister and is concerned about getting her home in time for work.
Fifties cover band Sha Na Na seems like an odd choice on the line-up, but their silliness is an extension of the fun and joy within music, so why not? What’s even odder is learning they actually appeared before Jimi Hendrix came out on the last day.
Storm clouds blow in, and the wind whips. The organizers have to repeatedly ask people to move away from towers for safety. A chant of “No Rain” begins but doesn’t work. Some leave the concert area, some use it as a chance to bathe, and one guy claims “”the man” seeded the clouds to ruin the show. The majority embrace the weather and play in the mud.
When Arlo Guthrie performs “Coming Into Los Angeles,” the visuals show people smoking pot and even a few cameramen take part. Yet, not everyone is on drugs. Some do kundalini yoga in its place, which one man compares to smoking DMT.
Crosby Stills Nash (& Young, who refused to be filmed) are playing their second gig together and do a great job on “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes.” Ten Years After plays a great blues-based rock medley including bits from “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Baby, Please Don’t Go,” “Whole Shakin’ Goin On.” They tear it up and go to the Interfuckingmission on a high note.
During Jefferson Airplane’s performances, the U.S. Army is seen bringing in medical teams to help out. A man reveals a kid overdosed on heroin, and another was run over. To balance that out, a child was born. Governor Nelson Rockefeller declares the region a disaster area, and the camera captures a girl freaking out over too many people around her but she can’t leave.
John Sebastian sings “Younger Generation” set to footage of children at the show, many running around naked. Country Joe McDonald leads the crowd in the anti-Vietnam War song “I-Feel-like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag.”
A return to the townsfolk shows an old couple unhappy with the mess. Their fields have been walked through. Other people are seen arguing over the kids, pro and con.
On “Soul Sacrifice” Santana gets the audience feeling the groove and dancing. Drummer Mike Shrieve tears it up on his solo. Sly & the Family Stone deliver intensity on “I Want to Take You Higher” while Janis Joplin delivers emotion on “Work Me, Lord.”
A Port-O-San guy reveals the reality of having that many people together. He deserves a tip of the hat for his hard work. Yasgur says some kind words, and then Hendrix closes out the live musical performances. During “Purple Haze,” the aftermath is shown with garbage everywhere and a few kids cleaning up the mess.
Woodstock was shot on 16mm film and then blown up, so the great amount of grain is understandable, particularly in the low light scenes. Thankfully it wasn’t removed as is too often the custom because it would have been severe and marred the film greatly. The focus is soft at times, so the details aren’t always completely delineated. There is a lot of color, but it’s not consistently bright in every scene. For example, the tie-dye shirts don’t pop as expected. The video has dirt and defects throughout. The aspect ratio fluctuates throughout the film as the split-screen was used frequently to present three different camera views. Even though there are some issues, when taking the source and the shooting conditions into consideration, the video looks very good and adds to the authenticity.
Naturally, the music shines on the Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track. Whether the power of The Who or the simplicity of Joan Baez, the nuances and strengths of all the artists can be heard. There’s not a great deal of ambiance, which is to be expected considering the event was recorded from the stage. Still, crowd noise and the thunderstorm can be heard throughout the system.
Disc 2 is filled with extras sure to drive wild any music fan of the era. “Woodstock: Untold Stories” presents over two hours of never-before-seen musical performances including those that have never appeared in the film, such as Paul Butterfield, Mountain, and Johnny Winter. Also in that select group are Creedence Clearwater Revival and The Grateful Dead, although Jerry Garcia can be seen backstage. John Fogerty didn’t allow any footage to appear because he didn’t like their performance and problems with the sound, which is evident, especially in surround. The Grateful Dead didn’t like their performance either, but now their 37-minute “ Turn on Your Lovelight” can be seen. Little bits about the opening and closing of the festival look like they were recently printed because the color looks much better than anything seen in the film.
“Woodstock: From Festival to Feature” is a comprehensive featurette on a myriad of topics about the festival and the filming from start to finish. It includes producers of the film and event, bands and event staff, Wadleigh, and even Scorsese. They present an amazing story of how it all came together under the circumstances. Unfortunately, the segments are too short with each getting roughly three minutes. It would have been better to create one single feature with chapters. I would have been greatly interested in hearing from attendees.
The Ultimate Collector’s Edition comes encased in a slipcase bound in a facsimile suede halter-top with fringes. Other keepsakes include a Lucite display with images from the festival, an iron-on Woodstock patch, a Woodstock fact sheet, and reproductions of festival memorabilia, including handwritten notes and a three-day ticket. The best item is a 60-page commemorative LIFE Magazine reprint filled with pictures
Woodstock does the landmark event proud. It might be a “Long Time Gone,” but I highly recommend people experience this film. Not just for the music, which is worth it on its own, but as a snapshot of the United States as the sixties came to a close. There are only 140,000 copies of the Blu-ray and #1475 sits proudly on my shelf.