Saturday, August 15, 2009

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Woodstock (1970)

It was forty years ago today that a generation came together in upstate New York to celebrate a vision of the future that included good music, peace and love...and perhaps a recreational drug or two.

Yep, the Woodstock concert is officially four decades old in August of 2009, and given that landmark anniversary, I thought it would be appropriate to remember Woodstock -- the movie -- today.

This Academy-award winning non-fiction film endures as a remarkable document, one that pain-stakingly charts a specific time and place, particularly Bethel, New York, on the specific weekend when 1.5 million kids descended on a parcel of farmland for what ultimately became a free concert (much to the surprise of the show's concerned financiers).

It's no hyperbole to state that Woodstock is a giant among documentaries (and concert films), much as the event itself remains a colossus among concerts. If you want to witness the dark side of the Vietnam generation, check out (the equally amazing, if depressing...) Gimme Shelter. But Woodstock has the good vibrations. It delivers just what the film's subtitle promises: Three Days of Peace and Music.

Yet what I admire most about the movie Woodstock is that director Michael Wadleigh depicts two engaging stories simultaneously. One is the story of the music itself, of the on-stage performances. You've got Arlo Guthrie, The Who, and Crosby, Stills and Nash. Virtually everything about this facet of the film is sterling; from Joan Baez on stage at night by her lonesome, singing about her incarcerated husband (a draft dodger), to the always energetic Jimi Hendrix, doing his particular brand of hard rock.

But today, I'm even more fascinated by the other story depicted by Wadleigh. It's a tale of logistics; of preparations; of amazing, vast scope. In other words, Woodstock is a film that doesn't merely provide shots of teeming masses, it's one that desires to reveal how those masses lived for three days (and nights) in that farmland setting. The film shows us how, where, and when concert-goers slept, carving out territory for themselves and pleasantly "saying goodnight" to their neighbors. It reveals how people made the best of a difficult situation when the sky opened up and it began to rain. Before long, the ground had turned to slick, messy mud...

The film shows us concert-goers standing patiently in line to use a pay phone (and check-in with their worried parents). At one point, we even learn that a baby has been born at Woodstock. And then realization dawns that this is not merely a "shitty mess" as one person suggests, but rather a full-blown, ad-hoc city. There's health care (forty-five doctors from the Army have arrived; all toiling without pay), there's food, there are even bathing facilities (meaning a place for co-ed skinny dipping.)

Improbably, Wadleigh even arranges an entire sequence around the toilets; portable chemical port-a-johns that service the vast crowd. And finally, at the end of the film, we see volunteers cleaning up the deserted field, picking up what appears to be a vast sea of garbage. "Just love everybody and clean up a little garbage on the way out, and everything will be fine," one organizer optimistically suggests.

There was so much footage shot for Woodstock that, at times, the movie cuts to split-screens, ones two-and-three frames strong. To Wadleigh's credit, he marshals the technique when it is merited -- as balance and counterweight, mostly -- not when he's simply attempting to be flashy. The result is a visually dazzling film that's never less than compelling.

Unlike the rowdy, contentious Town Halls we see on TV today, the Woodstock concert didn't require policemen to step in and maintain law and order. Instead, people behaved themselves and didn't act on ignorance or bigotry. Fifty thousand teenagers were expected...and over a million showed up. And yet there were no major incidents to report.

I suspect there's a lesson in that somewhere.

The radical right wing in this country has been very successful at marginalizing, ridiculing and lampooning the Peace Generation (with a little help from the "libertarian" South Park). But that's okay, because the Left has this film -- an authentic time capsule -- capturing Woodstock in all its glory, wonder and peace. And undeniably, this the finest moment of that Peace Generation.

Rent Woodstock, watch Woodstock...and commemorate a time in America when an event like this could actually happen without courting disaster. At this point -- what with those pesky Death Panels and all -- I don't think it's going to happen again soon.


  1. Great review! One thing that amazes me about the movie is that it's such compelling viewing over such a long running time. Other concert docs of the era can't measure up at half or a quarter of the length.

    Also, it's interesting that the movie Charlton Heston's character watches over and over (we assume) in "The Omega Man" is Woodstock; Heston's politics are well-known, and he was no fan of the hippies but the sense of loss we see on his face is palpable. Heston had a lot of control over his three SF classics of that era (and all three represent personal philosophies of his in some way - see the Starlog interview he did in the 80s), and could have vetoed that choice (if it wasn't his to begin with). The crowds, of course, would be one attraction in a depopulated world... but it's clearly more than that. Politics aside, the event said something incredibly positive about humanity.

  2. Another wonderful review. I have been in a Woodstock mode all day. It truly was a magnificent event. I was only 11 when it occurred, but I have a cousin who went and still talks about it.

    Isn't odd the two flash points occurred the same year about a week apart? The Manson Murders and then Woodstock...two opposite ends of the counter-culture coin.

  3. Nice review. It reminds me that I really need to pick up the new special edition of this film that just came out a little while ago.

    I think that one has to look no further about what we've lost in terms of innocence and idealism since the first Woodstock than the subsequent revivals that got further and further away from the notions of the original into more crass commercialism.