When Max Yasgur, the farm owner who provided Michael Lang and his crew with the necessary space for the legendary music festival to take place, stood in front of roughly 500,000 people and bravely addressed them, he pretty much expressed everything that Woodstock was about, and everything that the film made during those three days, still stands for: “This is the largest group of people ever assembled in one place, and I think you people have proven something to the world: that a half a million kids can get together and have three days of fun and music and have nothing but fun and music. And I God bless you for it!”
A documentary on the Woodstock Festival that took place in August 1969 at Bethel, New York, Woodstock is directed by Michael Wadleigh and was released in March 1970. Edited by a group of filmmakers, including Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker, the documentary is by far the most entertaining and well-made concert movie ever made. A huge commercial and critical success, Woodstock received the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature and two nominations for Best Sound and Best Editing. Selected for preservation in the US National Film Registry by the Library of Congress, as a movie “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”, Woodstock gave body and history to what was until then just a state of mind.
Offering a close look at the Woodstock Music & Art Festival held in August 1969, the documentary takes its audience from the early preparation stage to the last cleanup after it has all ended. It includes interviews of the concertgoers, the producers of the festival, and the people working behind everything, as well as an intimate look at every musical act and unexpected incidents, like the arrival of National Guard helicopters, bringing food, clothes and medical assistance for what was declared a disaster area. Aka an impromptu city of 500,000 people. Aka a weekend of music, peace and love. — Woodstock’s sub-description highly depends on the individual’s perspective.
A film about not just the music, but also the place, the time and the people, Woodstock gets up close and personal with everything. Michael Wadleigh’s camera allows everyone watching to get lost between Jimi Hendrix’s fingers, to be electrified by Joe Cocker’s voice and Pete Townsend’s guitar, as much as it allows everyone to taste what the Hog Farm is serving, check out what commodities the Port-O-San toilet facilities include, swim in the lake, slide in the mud, and, more than anything, experience how good three days with no violence, no fighting, no politics and no fear can really be. So basically unless you were there, this film is the closest you will ever get to Woodstock. And it’s pretty close.
The film doesn’t follow the actual timeline of the music festival, however, it keeps the opening and closing act the same as in real life, with Richie Havens kick-starting the three days of music, and Jimi Hendrix ending them. Apart from the two, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Canned Heat, Joan Baez, The Who, Sha-Na-Na, Joe Cocker, Country Joe and the Fish, Arlo Guthrie, Ten Years After, Jefferson Airplane, Santana, Sly and the Family Stone, and Janis Joplin offer outstanding performances, and Michael Wadleigh’s crew does an amazing job recording them. If I have to find something negative about this flawless piece of work, the only thing I could ever come up with — and this is after I recently watched the editor’s cut, or else I would have never even known — is the fact that the Creedence Clearwater Revival performance was omitted during the final editing of the film. A bit of a shame, since John Fogerty’s act was exceptional and definitely worth a place in the film.
Woodstock is three and a half hours long, but it never allows you to look anywhere else. And even when your hippy, rebellious self starts getting a little tired, or when your rock ‘n’ roll nature desperately wants Joan Baez to say that “Amen” and walk off stage, you are still kept hooked. Because the order in which everything has been put into the film is perfect. The second the documentary feels like it’s risking losing a bit of its viewer’s focus, it does something big and brings him back in. To the extent that you keep thinking “after this I’ll get some cookies from the cupboard”, but the cookie never comes in the end. And just as you finally think it’s time, and you half get up to get yourself a snack, Country Joe McDonald puts you back in your place: “Listen people, I don’t know how you expect to ever stop the war if you can’t sing any better than that… There’s about 300,000 of you fuckers out there… I want you to start singing.”
Without forcing his material, Michael Wadleigh is a part of everything that is happening around him, and his movie succeeds in staying objective, presenting the musicians, the festival attendants, the festival’s producer and his crew, Bethel’s residents, and the people working to keep everyone in Woodstock fed and safe. However, at the same time, the film is not at all neutral. Although clearly on the kids’ side, Woodstock still manages to not get in the way between the viewer and the view. The best documentary ever made in America, a beautiful, colourful, moving, and, ultimately flawless movie from every perspective, Woodstock is a constant reminder of the fact that we have it in us to be great…
Michael Wadleigh at Unsung Films
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