This week marks the 45th anniversary of the Woodstock Music & Art Fair. It’s not a milestone year, except that it’s divisible by five. And of course, this is Woodstock — that undying and relatively brief slice of the 1960s when all that was (to some) good and optimistic and rockin’ about the counterculture gelled into a messy, dirty utopia.
This reputation may be slightly — maybe even greatly — exaggerated. But look closely and the most popular portrait of the festival — the 1970 documentary/concert movie “Woodstock” — may agree with you, if just a little. The film is back on shelves, naturally, in a set fairly confusingly billed as the “40th Anniversary Revisited,” which takes the Blu-ray set issued five years ago and adds another disc of random, never-before-seen performances, including Melanie and more from The Grateful Dead and Jimi Hendrix.
The film, directed by Michael Wadleigh, is not exactly ambivalent about Woodstock. But it shows it to be less ideal than its flowery cultural image. It doesn’t shy away from talking to locals from Bethel, New York, some of whom are supportive, some of whom are angry, some of whom are severely inconvenienced by a festival that turned their town into a “disaster area,” complete with down phone lines, miles upon miles of parked cars and the closing of the New York Expressway. Everything is messy and seriously disorganized; the entire festival seems to be hanging together by a frayed thread. The film usually gets lost in the music, but it’s more than a one-note valentine.
It’s also a hell of a movie. Here are some ways it proved innovative:
It really created the myth of Woodstock
Woodstock was a news magnet, especially as it was happening, and especially if you were in New York. (Then-Governor Nelson Rockefeller nearly sent in the National Guard to shut it down.) But it didn’t become the untouchable icon that it did till the movie came out in March of 1970, thus allowing viewers the experience of feeling like they were there. And it was a smash: It was one of the year’s biggest hits, eclipsed only by “Love Story,” “Airport,” “M.A.S.H.” and (amusingly) “Patton,” and in 1994 it received an expanded version, which added over 40 minutes (including performances from Canned Heat, Jefferson Airplane and Janis Joplin). In fact, if you’re someone who dislikes hippies or the cottage industry built around the myth of the ’60s, the film “Woodstock” is one of the biggest culprits.
It made concert movies into big moneymakers
Financially, the festival was a disaster. The price was $18 a head, or $116.90, which seems a bit low for three whole days of music. (Woodstock ’94 was $135 for two days — which eventually became three — or $217.11 today. The notorious Woodstock 1999 was, adjusted for inflation, cheaper at $150, or $214.59 now.)
On top of that, it didn’t take long for people without tickets to break down the fence and storm in. In the film, organizer Michael Lang is seen heroically announcing he was making it a free concert, with newbies’ tickets to be comped by the promoters — except you don’t see Lang and company’s reactions the morning after the festival ended, when they realized they were deep in the red. (You also don’t see the reactions of those who paid for tickets and felt ripped off — but hey, they were hippies, so they probably didn’t mind.)
At the time concert movies weren’t moneymakers. There had even recently been a string of flops. “Woodstock” turned out to be a big hit, as did the three-LP soundtrack (which featured several performances not even in the film). But Lang and company didn’t invest in those, thinking they wouldn’t make money. Whoops.
It broadened the scope of the concert movie
Financial and cultural success aside, it can be easy to forget what a great film it is — an immersive experience that used cutting edge (or at least repurposed) techniques to create a sensory overload. It wasn’t the first rock concert movie — among those would be D.A. Pennebaker’s more modest “Monterey Pop,” which includes iconic turns from Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin — but it’s the first to think big. It’s an epic that really takes its time; the first performance, by Richie Havens, doesn’t even happen till the 25-minute mark.
In fact, it’s only about 70 percent a concert movie. Especially in the director’s cut, there are giant spaces between the numbers that observe what’s going on. There’s the rain chant/mud slide sequence, the skinnydipping sequence, the chat with the Port-O-San cleaner (who sued the filmmakers). There are lengthy chats with people, including a guy who’s not into drugs and is arguably one of the few that’s really and truly “free” from the shackles of society.
It provided early work for Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker
Among its best traits is using split-screen to fill the eyeballs with sights, as well as shifting aspect ratios — from full-frame to cinemascope — to keep viewers on edge. Turns out there were some budding geniuses who came up with that idea. Martin Scorsese was between his first and second features when he got a job on “Woodstock,” on which he’s billed as both assistant director and an editor. One of his fellow editors was no less than Thelma Schoonmaker, who had edited Scorsese’s “Who’s That Knocking at My Door” and would edit every one of his films starting with “Raging Bull.”
They are the ones who came up with the use of split-screen — sometimes two images side-by-side, but more often three, sometimes laid on top of each other to create a mish-mash effect. It was done more out of necessity: They had 120 hours of footage to work with and a lot of “story” to get through. In fact, three hours wasn’t enough. Most of the non-performance sections are split-screen, with one supplying exposition or information of some kind, and the other adding to the ambiance. When it uses this for the performances, it’s more for flavor, and for getting a real sense of the music. It even heightens certain performances. If you watch the performances on the extra discs, they’re in full-frame and more classically edited, and they lack the distinct oomph of the three-screen Crosby, Stills and Nash sequence, and especially the dynamic one by Ten Years After. Speaking of which…
It created a batch of new stars
A fair amount of the performers were established icons (though it’s worth noting The Who were at the time bankrupt and almost didn’t play). But the concert — and the film — catapulted some to fame. Ten Years After went from an obscure British blues rock outfit, led by “fastest guitar in the West” Alvin Lee, to playing stadiums. Santana had had a hit with “Evil Ways” but were basically a slot-filler. Their earthquaking performance of the instrumental “Soul Sacrifice” turned them into radio staples, for good or ill. (Say what you will about Carlos Santana, but he kills at Woodstock — and so does that drummer, who by the end looks like he’s going to die.)
The aftermath: It’s popular to knock “Woodstock” while praising the film “Gimme Shelter,” a kind of companion piece that depicted another Michael Lang concert: Altamont, which was to be the West Coast Woodstock but which ended in a murder caught on film. Altamont and “Gimme Shelter” killed the ’60s, or at least the mythic one Woodstock had created.
This isn’t entirely true. The movie “Woodstock” was out three months after Altamont, thus adding to the myth. Then again, the era had already passed. “Woodstock” is a time capsule, for sure, but it’s more than that. It’s a bottling up of a very brief — and not always ideal — period when a potential clusterf— turned out to go more or less swimmingly. (Though among the final images in the film are acres of trash.)
But it’s also about youth. The vast majority of attendees are very young, and at that point when their bodies can take not only copious drugs but also three days of sleeping in the mud, of staying up all night listening to bands, of barely eating and probably not drinking much water. Try going to a single concert in your 30s without grumbling about having to stand for an hour to see how special this festival was.
Even more importantly, they’re not yet cynical and sincerely believe they can change the world for the better. That didn’t happen. “Woodstock” isn’t so much a celebration of the ’60s and hippies and some sometimes awesome rock ‘n’ roll. It’s an elegy for fading youth. After all, how many of the people skinnydipping voted for Romney?
Bonus: Top 5 performances (at least in the film)
1. Ten Years After, "I'm Going Home"
2. Santana, "Soul Sacrifice"
3. Sly and the Family Stone, "Higher"
4. The Who, "See Me, Feel Me"
5. Crosby, Stills & Nash, "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes"
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge