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Review: Woodstock (1970)

Woodstock (1970)

Directed by: Michael Wadleigh

Premise:  A documentary about the three day music festival held near Bethel, New York in 1969. 

What Works: The Woodstock music festival was an extraordinary event for a variety of reasons. It brought together a distinguished lineup of musicians including Crosby, Stills & Nash, The Who, Joe Cocker, Jefferson Airplane, Sly and the Family Stone, Janis Joplin, and Jimi Hendrix under very unusual circumstances. Hordes of young people gathered at a dairy farm for what was supposed to be a standard commercial music festival but became something else altogether; Woodstock was a communal event—the zenith of the countercultural movement and one of the defining events of a generation. While the Woodstock festival was in progress, filmmaker Michael Wadleigh oversaw a crew of documentarians who recorded the stage show as well as the audience and backstage activities. The result was extraordinary – not just a concert film but a document of a place and time. Of course, the main attraction of Woodstock is the stage show. The music of the late 1960s was unique in that it brought together performers of various musical styles with audiences of mixed ethnicities and the content of the music was vibrant and raw. The lineup at Woodstock reflected this and if this film only consisted of music that alone would make it an exceptional piece of film. The stage performances possess the energy that is unique to live events and the filmmakers use the widescreen format to give panoramic views of the show but also split the screen to double the coverage and add a psychedelic touch that’s in keeping with the style of the time. But there is more to Woodstock than that. The documentary begins well before the music gets started, cataloging the preparations for the concert and the arrival of thousands of concertgoers. The footage provides a sense of the chaos; Woodstock should have been a disaster (and to some degree it was) but the fact that the concert was a success is part of the mystique around this event. Wadleigh’s film crosscuts the stage show with interviews of the young people as well as the residents of Bethel, New York. These segments are quite revealing. The younger interviewees elaborate on their hopes and values and, contrary to the way the 1960s is usually depicted in fictional films, the older crowd is actually quite accommodating of the younger generation. To some degree, Woodstock is a propaganda piece by and for the rock-and-roll generation and their politics. But these cutaways give the documentary a context that is altogether different from any other concert film. Woodstock flings the viewer into the moment and it captures the spirit of the festival. There is something mysterious about this event and this period of time that continues to fascinate and this documentary puts that ineffable appeal on the screen.

What Doesn’t: Because this documentary was made at the time—it was shot during the event and then released the following year—Woodstock is inherently limited in its perspective. This concert grew out of a specific cultural moment and the film is an incredible document of one of the defining events of its time. But half a century on, the significance of what’s on screen might wash over contemporary audiences. The film doesn’t introduce the musical acts but rather expects the audience to recognize them. That suits the haphazard nature of the 1969 festival but it also means that contemporary viewers miss some of the context of the footage and the performances.

DVD extras: There are two version of Woodstock. The original theatrical cut ran 185 minutes. In 1994 a 224 minute director’s cut was issued on DVD. The 2014 Blu-ray release includes the director’s cut as well as a documentary, featurettes, and unused footage.   

Bottom Line: It’s too little to call Woodstock a music documentary. The stage show is the main attraction but like the event it captures, Woodstock transcends the music. This film is an important document of its time but also an impressive piece of filmmaking that has some remarkable stage performances and insight into the crowd who gathered to watch them.

Episode: #762 (August 18, 2019)