It was 1969 when a young Michael Wadleigh found himself on his way to a Max Yasgur’s farm, followed by a large and excited camera crew to document what was soon to become the world-renowned ‘Woodstock Music & Art Fair’ and the three most talked about days of peace and music. This footage ended up being much, much more than a straight-up documentary of the festival. It gave the director, Michael Wadleigh the recognition he so greatly deserved and through his eyes, he was able to give everybody a look into whatever these three days were, or became. In an interview, Wadleigh stated that he’d tried to capture ‘a timeless event, like the Canterbury Tales’ and that ‘the general human condition can be looked at within a metaphorical construct called Woodstock’ – and this, I think, is what it was. Wadleigh had succeeded in capturing what it really is to be human, displayed in a huge field with music, the stage and the greatest bands on the planet. All our pleasure, pain, insecurities, protest, war and peace can be found there in that festival.
Wadleigh arrived there on the 15th of August 1969, after deciding on the project around 3 months before, in the May of that same year. Woodstock was to be his directorial debut and his last until his 1981 horror-thriller Wolfen, which credited him as a director and a screenwriter. 18 years later, he directed the video documentary, Jimi Hendrix: Live at Woodstock in 1999. Before Woodstock, he had only been accredited for a number of projects as a cinematographer, under the slightly altered name, Michael Wadley. It was around the time of Woodstock’s release that he started working under his current name, and 4 years later that he served as cinematographer for the Janis Joplin based documentary, Janis, in 1974.
Michael was born in Ohio, 1942 and his interest in films kind of broke through in his early twenties, when he entered the industry as a cinematographer for a few low-budget independent films like I Call First in 1967 and My Girlfriend’s Wedding in 1968. During these years, although the films he had been a part of met critical acclaim throughout independent and underground circles, financial and commercial success was minimal. The director, at this point, was associating himself with films that were trying, ceaselessly, to speak to smaller, countercultural audiences. It was only until Woodstock that he first experienced any exposure on a larger scale – and Woodstock exploded all over the country, while people everywhere devoured his work. On release, it earned over 50 million dollars in America alone. This impact was an accurate indication of the reputation that Wadleigh enjoyed after this enormous project, and the impact that this project, and subsequent other work would continue to have for years and years to come, all over the world.
It was that particular time that intrigued and encapsulated Wadleigh more than anything – leading him to put together his biggest and most established piece of work. It was the end of the sixties, before the dust had fully settled, and the era had a heavy impact on his work. When he decided on documenting the festival, he’d done so as all these great musicians at the peak of their powers had come together to perform. Wadleigh was a 27-year old filmmaker, who had been swept up by the music and the ever-growing counterculture, and when he was asked about the music at Woodstock, he emphasised Hendrix, ‘it was virtually like he took his own guts and strung them in place of the strings, really playing his body’ – and really the director’s adoration for the guitarist is entirely evident. I think, as a filmmaker, if you can succeed in capturing just a fragment of that feeling, and of the energy that can come out of live music, then you’ve succeeded in doing what so many filmmakers try to do all their lives.