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...
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.