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.
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.
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.