Hey Man, It’s Your Trip: Woodstock

Woodstock movie poster

 

The classic feature documentary Woodstock captures the full experience of the near-mythical 1969 festival of the same name, from septic tanks to traffic jams to brown acid. It remains an important record of one of the most peaceful spontaneous gatherings in human history, not to mention the brief-lived spirit of the hippie movement as a whole.

The original version directed by Michael Wedleigh, with a young Martin Scorsese as assistant director and editor and Thelma Schoonmaker as editor, was released the following year and played continuously in theaters for years. Oddly, it is the only film that the last surviving human on earth (Charlton Heston) chooses to watch repeatedly in The Ωmega Man. A Director’s Cut added 40 minutes of additional footage in 1994, but the new 40th Anniversary edition is a whopping four hours long, “Interfuckingmission” included. It’s unclear whether or not Scorsese and Schoonmaker were involved in either of the expanded editions.

The film is experimental in format, extending even to the aspect ratio. Nearly the first ten minutes are windowpaned, leading me at first to suspect something was wrong with the DVD. But the movie then alternates from windowpane to widescreen to splitscreen. The only other movie I can think of off the top of my head that played as loose with aspect ratios is the opening sequence to Frank Tashlin’s The Girl Can’t Help It.

Jimi Hendrix in Woodstock

With a leisurely four hours to fill, the first full 25 minutes concern the arrival of early fans while the stage is still being constructed. A surely ironic mural on one of the famously psychedelic caravan buses reads “even God loves America.” One of the festival’s most iconic images — a pair of nuns flashing a peace sign to camera — may have been in fact partially staged (as alleged in Ang Lee’s Taking Woodstock). Based on the memoirs of Elliot Tiber, Lee’s film goes on to tell a conflicting, largely discounted, version of events in which a small town misfit midwifes the festival, which in turn frees his identity and transforms his family.

The first performance footage in Woodstock is an extended unbroken close-up of Richie Havens’ intense solo performance. Finally, the cameras turn the other way around and look out at the staggeringly huge crowd. Indeed, as later scenes make clear, so many people arrived that the earliest arrivals couldn’t physically leave. That such a large number of people coexisted peacefully while quite literally being trapped is a minor miracle.

Everybody knows the tale of the gargantuan crowd, but I underestimated the scale of the concert itself. In my mind, I always pictured a tiny stage dwarfed by throngs of hippies, but in actuality, the festival itself would have been a large production even if the crowds hadn’t materialized. Before simple logic forced the organizers to waive the ticket fee, the festival had a multi-million-dollar budget footing a massive stage, huge towers, power, food, lighting, and sound system.

A scene from Woodstock

Not all the acts would necessarily be known to later generations watching the documentary, but there is some surprising variety in genre; Joan Baez and Arlo Guthrie’s folk, Sly and the Family Stone’s funk, and Sha-Na-Na’s retro pop went a long way towards breaking up the sometimes tedious stretches of blues-rock jamming. Some key performances either weren’t filmed (such as The Band, at their request) or shot but excluded from the film (particularly The Grateful Dead, whose performance was compromised by heavy rain and technical issues), and some of the era’s top acts were absent altogether (most notably The Beatles, Bob Dylan, and The Rolling Stones — but Scorsese would later catch up with all three of them in his own documentaries Living In the Material World, No Direction Home, and Shine a Light). Personally, I most liked seeing The Who and Jimi Hendrix at the height of their powers, and was pleasantly surprised by an obviously nervous Crosby, Stills and Nash. CSN claimed it was only their second gig, and they seemed visibly relieved to receive applause. Each act was allotted only 1-2 songs each, even in the extended version of the film, which for many of these artists is not enough. I would have liked to see more Who footage, especially the famous moment where the often tempestuous Pete Townshend famously booted countercultural icon Abbie Hoffman offstage: “Fuck off! Fuck off my fucking stage!”

Interviews with audience members during the concert demonstrate that they were already self-mythologizing the event as it was occurring around them. A legend quickly spread that the gathering was the equivalent of a spontaneous city. Not quite, but the actual total of 500,000 people was nothing to sneeze at. But they were all correct that it was nothing less than a miracle that that many people could gather in one place and survive a massive storm on the second day, all without violence. That is, aside from Townshend again: “The next fuckin’ person that walks across this stage is gonna get fuckin’ killed!”

The film includes co-organizer Michael Lang and concertgoers facing hostile interviewers determined to express their bias that rock music is empty and meaningless. Scorsese emphasized similar confrontations in No Direction Home, where Dylan is dogged by condescending reporters determined to undermine his political and social import.

Wedleigh’s camera often seeks out nude young women. The blatant scopophilia misses the point of the burgeoning equality between the sexes by the late 60s — not only are the hippies embracing free love, they’re also obviously comfortable enough in each other’s company to bathe together like children in a bathtub. I can’t believe I’m complaining about the sight of naked girls, but Wedleigh’s camera is often just plain lustful.

Aside from free love and unashamed nudity, the next most alien aspect for contemporary post-War-on-Drugs viewers is the pragmatic attitude towards controlled substances. One of the first people seen brandishing a joint onscreen is none other than Jerry Garcia, despite his band not appearing in the performance footage. Everybody’s heard about the infamously dodgy brown acid, but dig this eminently pragmatic announcement issued from the stage: “Hey man, it’s your trip, don’t let me stop you, but if you feel like experimenting, try half a tab.” In contrast, we see a huge crowd practicing Kundalini yoga, which the guru espouses as an alternative to drugs.

One of the most striking sequences is when the documentary steps back from the proceedings to take in another angle that wouldn’t ordinary be covered in a typical concert documentary. Wedleigh takes the time to meet a Port-O-San maintainer with one son attending the festival and another flying helicopters in the Vietnam DMZ.


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Lou Reed’s Berlin

lou_reeds_berlin.jpg

 

Lou Reed‘s 1973 album Berlin is a concept album relating the tale of a doomed woman named Caroline living in the eponymous city. The term “concept album,” then and now, invokes immediate condescension from fans and critics alike, calling to mind the progressive rock excesses of 1970s megabands The Who (Tommy and Quadrophenia) and Yes (Tales from Topographic Oceans). The poet and arty downtown Manhattanite Reed might have better served himself by referring to Berlin as something more fancy-sounding, perhaps a “song cycle.”

Reed’s previous album Transformer was a great commercial success, debuting the enduring hits Satellite of Love, Perfect Day, and Walk on the Wild Side. To follow it up with something like Berlin may have been loaded with artistic integrity, but was asking for trouble in terms of making a living. I recall reading that enough material was recorded for it to be a double-lp, but it was edited down to a single disc before release (I can’t find a source for this factoid online, but I believe it was related in the liner notes of his 1992 retrospective boxed set Between Thought and Expression). Produced by Bob Ezrin (whose concept album credentials also include Pink Floyd’s The Wall), it was a commercial disaster at the time. So, cursed from the beginning, the full studio version has apparently never been released.

lou_reed_berlin_1.jpg“Caroline says / While biting her lip / Life is meant to be more than this”

In retrospect, Reed now seems to have been compelled to flee from commercial success, or at the very least was bound and determined not to repeat himself. Reed’s other infamous commercial disaster Metal Machine Music was another deliberate provocation: even the most open minded musicologist might charitably characterize it as earsplitting noise. But Berlin is different, hated more for its tone and subject matter than its sound. Several of the songs are lovely, but wow is the complete work depressing, full of anger, venom, resentment, death, despair, and guilt. The song “The Kids” is especially harrowing, ending with a tape of children wailing.

Over time, the album was eventually rediscovered. One of those reappraising Berlin was no less than artist and filmmaker Julian Schnabel. So it came to be, that 33 years after its release, Schnabel proposed to Reed that Berlin really ought to be a film. Schnabel is obviously attracted to artists dedicated to their work with utter conviction: revolutionary New York Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat in the eponymous biopic, the gay poet Reinaldo Arenas in Castro-era Cuba in Before Night Falls, and the paralyzed writer Jean-Dominique Bauby in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (read The Dork Report review). Berlin’s DVD bonus features include a brief conversation with Reed and Schnabel on Elvis Costello’s show Spectacle, in which Schnabel describes his attraction to the cinema from the perspective of a painter: he reverently refers to the canvas-like movie screen as “The Rectangle.”

Something that only people who’ve seem him live would know is that Reed is a great guitar player. He’s also visibly in surprisingly good shape for a former junkie (sorry, but it’s true). Does he practice yoga? Reed in performance is supremely cool and detached, but some startlingly real emotion comes through in his vocal delivery; he spits out the lines “they took her children away” from the song “The Kids” with real venom.

lou_reed_berlin_2.jpgAntony dances the rock minuet

Original guitarist Steve Hunter rejoined Reed for the Berlin tour, and can barely contain his pleasure, despite the grim subject matter. Bob Ezrin conducts with great enthusiasm, but oddly, he seems to be facing the drummer, away from the choir and woodwinds. One of my favorite bassists, Fernando Saunders, doesn’t really get to shine, but perhaps it was my sound system that couldn’t do him justice. Julian Schnabel’s daughter Lola directed film clips projected during the performance, starring Emmanuelle Seigner as Caroline.

So Reed finally got a chance to present Berlin live, as a whole. Now the once-denigrated work has become a world tour, a theatrical feature film, a live album, and a DVD. Reed is now considered a New York deity, not the erratic heroin addict he was back in the day. His career is far from over and there’s plenty of time for more drama, but could this be his ultimate revenge?

The encore includes a special treat, a lovely version of Rock Minuet sung by Antony Hegarty (of Antony and the Johnsons) in his otherworldly voice. Rock Minuet was not from the original album, but a special request from Schnabel, who rightly felt it belonged. But it’s followed by a bummer: a desultory performance of the Velvet Underground standard Sweet Jane. It’s a letdown that after the emotionally intense proceedings, that Reed seems truly bored here and just walks through a song he’s probably played hundreds if not thousands of times.


Official movie site: www.berlinthefilm.com

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Sigur Rós: Heima

Sigur Ros Heima Movie Poster

 

Dean DeBlois’ documentary film Heima (meaning “coming home” or “at home”) follows the band Sigur Rós on their summer 2006 tour of their home country Iceland. The tour consisted of mostly free, unannounced concerts, and with the band in three basic configurations spanning the continuum of the purely acoustic to the fully electric. The four core members Jón Þór “Jónsi” Birgisson, Georg “Goggi” Hólm, Kjartan “Kjarri” Sveinsson, and Orri Páll Dýrason perform several acoustic songs just for the camera. The extended band (including string ensemble Amiina) is also seen performing outdoors, fully unplugged, at a concert protesting an environmentally destructive dam to be built by the Icelandic government. Finally, in contrast, we also see the full band in indoor concerts with dramatic lighting and video effects.

Sigur Ros HeimaSigur Rós live in concert

Most Sigur Rós songs are sung in an invented language called Vonlenska (“Hopelandic”), adding to the universality and international appeal of their music. For the uninitiated, Sigur Rós are a key representative of the musical genre “post-rock,” which generally refers to highly evocative, cinematic, largely instrumental music sometimes compared to movie soundtrack composition. Other notable bands working in roughly the same idiom include Mogwai, Explosions in the Sky, and Múm. In this Dork Reporter’s opinion, you can trace the genre’s heritage back to the progressive rock of Yes and King Crimson.

Sigur Ros HeimaSigur Rós live in concert

Interview clips and stunning landscape images punctuate the film, making it almost as much about Iceland itself as the band. The most incongruous clip is from the avant-garde band’s unlikely appearance on the Late Late Show with Craig Kilborn. They discuss being unprepared for the business side of a career in music (lawyers, contracts, etc.), but understand that they have to think of the future.

The second disc of the two DVD set features full uninterrupted performances, but with no two songs played in sequence, let alone a full concert. The fragmentation of both the main documentary film and the supplementary features is mildly disappointing. However, as reported in Pitchfork, the band has plans for a full concert film directed by Vincent Morisset.


Official movie sites: www.heima.co.uk and www.heimafilm.com

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