Jun 15 2009
Forty years ago this summer, a music festival held on a dairy farm in
a tiny rural community exploded into one of the defining moments of
the "flower power" generation.
The three-day concert in Bethel, New York State, was expected to
attract only about 50,000 people but almost half a million stormed
the gates to see some of the most important acts of the 1960s.
Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and The Who were among more than 30
artists who performed at the Woodstock Festival, named after the
nearby village which had become a magnet for musicians of the hippy era.
Billed as "three days of peace and music", Woodstock played out
against a backdrop of the Vietnam war. It hit newspaper headlines
around the world and captured the mood of the post-war generation,
who longed to break free from the past.
Michael Wadleigh was only 26 when he filmed the festival's music, mud
His movie won an Oscar for Best Documentary in 1970, as well as a
host of other awards. To celebrate the 40th anniversary of Woodstock,
it has been remastered and re-released on DVD with hours of extra performances.
Now 66, American-born director Wadleigh is a grandfather and lives on
a farm in Wales.
Here he describes his experience of the phenomenal cultural event
that would inspire millions and go down in history as the greatest
festival of all time.
WHAT MADE YOU DECIDE TO FILM WOODSTOCK? DID YOU KNOW IT WOULD BE SO BIG?
"I was training as a doctor in New York, and there were many
activities in America at the time, such as anti-war, human rights and
the ecology movement, so I took a year off from medical school to try
making films about those subjects.
"The first film that I made was on the American communist party,
which was founded in 1911 in Woodstock, New York, a village about a
hundred miles from New York City. Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and many, many
people had moved up there, because it was a beautiful village and
kind of a summer retreat for radicals.
"The boys who then came into my office, the producers of the
Woodstock concert, had also been drawn to Woodstock. They expected
maybe 50,000 people and they were off by one zero. Ten times as many
"The idea caught fire with America. As the kids say in the movie, it
wasn't really the music, it was a whole combination of things. It was
people trying to find their identity, what the Woodstock generation
called the 'counter-culture' and that was the gathering point. It was
largely young, white people, who wanted to be leaders and to find a
new direction for America and the world."
WHY HAS WOODSTOCK AND THE FILM ENDURED?
"Sixties music is unequalled. We've had a lot of bands since, but the
sheer virtuosity and creativity of groups like the Beatles and the
Stones and the Who, and of course Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin.
"You're looking at phenomenally interesting music that has stood the
test of time and, in my opinion, the reason is that in the Sixties
the musicians were competing to be original. Everybody wants to be
famous, but the idea then was to create an unusual sound and have
other musicians envy you because you had musically or lyrically done
something totally unique.
"Today if it's a hit, then 18 people will try to imitate it and earn
more money than you did. Money becomes the standard not originality.
"Glastonbury happened because of Woodstock. Mike Eavis got hold of a
bunch of us and he was so inspired by my movie that he then did his
own festival, bless his heart, but now it's all sort of cut and dried.
"It doesn't have the incredible spontaneity of Woodstock, it's all
highly lit and produced. With Woodstock you get this raw sense of
honesty and innocence. It was put on by 26-year-olds with no
corporation, no BBC there are no logos in the film."
HOW DID YOU MANAGE TO MAKE THE FILM?
"Well, er, speed (amphetamines). I didn't sleep at all, you know, it
was a great responsibility. I knew it was going to be a big hit or
have a big audience, because already it was famous while the festival
was going on, it was on every newspaper headline in the world, so I
couldn't relax, it was impossible.
"You can imagine the pressure of responsibility. I took no other
drugs at all, it was all just speed and coffee to stay super-alert.
"We shot hundreds of hours of footage, but we had to. There were 40
groups and we filmed every one of them and there were so many events
happening around with 500,000 people. We couldn't communicate well,
we didn't have cellphones then and the walkie-talkies we had were
very poor, so to make up for the lack of communication we shot more
footage, and then we took nine months to cut it.
"Martin Scorsese helped with the editing. As a cameraman, I had done
two of his earlier, experimental films and we needed crew. He was a
friend of mine and so he was one of 100 staff, but Marty was never a hippy."
WHAT WAS THE STAND-OUT MOMENT FOR YOU?
"The intensity with which Janis Joplin sings, you simply can't find a
singer like that. It's almost scary the amount of emotion and energy
and passion she puts into her performance. I was with Tina Turner
when she first saw Janis Joplin, and she said to Janis, 'Honey, you
can't continue to sing like that or you'll have no voice', and
Janis's response was just to laugh and take a swig on her Southern Comfort.
"I think no-one was surprised to hear that Janis Joplin was dead. She
seemed to be living up all of her energy that she had to give in just
a few years. Now you listen to covers of her songs by various women
and it's pale in comparison.
"It's a terrible thing, but on the credits at the end of the film,
the number of people who died young is astounding. They lived life at
"Everybody says, 'It's substance abuse', but it's also giving to us
incredible music. In a sense they paid with their lives and we're the
beneficiaries. You just can't expect that they can rigorously
separate harmful abusiveness from passion and conviction.
"Of course, I have a tough time getting away from Jimi Hendrix. When
I did the director's cut 15 years ago, it was shown at the Empire
theatre and Eric Clapton was there. Virtually every great guitarist
from England came to see Woodstock, but in particular they knew I'd
put in more footage of Hendrix.
"Clapton just came out shaking his head and said, 'I can't do it'.
They all felt that they couldn't possibly have the originality, just
to dream up the sounds that Hendrix dreamed up, they can't possibly
play like he did. It's just a tour de force and sounds like no-one
else. And it seems so easy to him, like he's not really trying. I
think that's another reason why Woodstock has lasted."
WHAT'S NEW ON THE 40TH ANNIVERSARY EDITION?
"The director's cut, which is four hours long, is on there, and much
cleaned up. This is such a famous film with some of the great
artists, so we wanted to update the technology. It also has two hours
of separate footage, which is not edited into the film, of some great
"There was a flood in the vaults where all the footage was kept at
Warner Brothers quite a few years ago, and a lot of footage was
destroyed. It was pure accident, caused by an earthquake in
California, and no-one realised that a pipe had burst until days
later. Film emulsion and water don't mix.
"So what you see there is the extra footage of the best performances
that survived. As a music lover, I want to see them. You know,
Creedence Clearwater, Johnny Winter, Grateful Dead are in there.
"What I didn't want to do was to edit them into the movie, because so
much has been lost. I had a six-hour cut, but it's gone forever."