'Woodstock' documents concert, the good and bad
Mick LaSalle, Chronicle Movie Critic
Friday, June 12, 2009
Woodstock, more than any rock concert in history, has become a
subject for myth and romance. It has become part of the lexicon. It
has come to signify the apotheosis of the '60s mind-set, the
crystallization of a beautiful peace-and-love moment - in contrast to
the Rolling Stones' Altamont concert, which ended in violence and is
largely remembered as the end of the Woodstock dream.
By such shorthand, we get popular history. Events are simplified,
labeled and shelved - dusted off occasionally for some cliched
reference, but otherwise forgotten.
Fortunately, there were cameras at Woodstock, lots of them, and we
can revisit the actual event - the three-day concert that took place
Aug. 15 to 17, 1969 - anytime we choose. Right now is an especially
good time: A new deluxe DVD edition of Michael Wadleigh's 1970
documentary has been released, featuring a remastered version of the
226-minute director's cut, along with interviews with Wadleigh and
editor Martin Scorsese, plus three extra hours of concert footage.
It's a blowout set commemorating a pivotal event in 20th century
popular culture and a signature moment in a generation's legend of itself.
But forget the legend. Perched on the shoulders of the cameramen, we
have the opportunity to see Woodstock as it actually was - and with
the additional perspective of some 40 years of social history. The
experience is surprising - a concert that today looks a lot sadder, a
lot grungier, a lot weirder and infinitely less romantic than the
cliche may have led us to believe.
Uh-oh. I think I just made some Baby Boomers angry. But w-w-w-w-wait
- just hold on and let me ask a question: When was the last time you
saw this movie? Because the last time I saw it was in January 1975,
before times and styles had made the world look radically different,
and I have to tell you that this time I noticed all kinds of things I
didn't see as a 15-year-old. This time the veil lifted on the myth,
and I got to see something more human scale and, in a way, more interesting.
And so, in the communal, loving and peaceful spirit of sharing, here
are eight things you might not have noticed about Woodstock, if you
haven't seen the movie in a long time:
1. They started mythmaking on Day 1: Already in the first hours of
the concert, the promoters, announcers and patrons were saying how
amazing, how astounding it was that hundreds of thousands of people
could come together, get sedated and not kill each other for three
whole days. Is that really so amazing that people who can barely
stand up don't get into fights?
2. The notion of Woodstock as a new model for civilization couldn't
be more asinine: On the basis of people not murdering each other
after three whole days, there came a corollary suggestion - that
Woodstock was, in some way, a utopian model. Really? For what? A
civilization in which the masses lie around in mud, aristocrats
entertain them with bread and circuses, and the army flies in food? A
civilization in which only the aristocrats get to wash, and everybody
else lives in squalor?
In this utopian model, who farms the food? Who works?
Actually, an argument could be made that we've moved toward the
Woodstock model over the past decade or so, in that we've become
elite consumers of information and services, while our manufacturing
base has gone to other countries. Yet however you measure it, the
Woodstock model for utopia looks like utter hell, a life of
meaninglessness and poverty, clouded by drugs and loud noise.
3. There are many men and few women: Early in "Woodstock," a guy says
he's going to the concert to meet women, because he expects they'll
be "a lot freer" there. He wasn't the only randy young fellow with
that idea. Just take a look at the crowd shots: The men outnumber the
women 10 to 1. There's a skinny-dipping scene in which a gal talks to
the camera and seven or eight guys hover in her vicinity. That's not
utopia for anybody.
4. People sound really stupid when they're stoned - no, really, even
stupider than you think: Poor John Sebastian is probably the worst,
rambling into a microphone about how Woodstock has become "a city,"
and how that baby born at the concert is going to be "far-out." In
fact, most of the interviews in "Woodstock" degenerate into vague,
well-meaning incoherence. It's not becoming.
5. This was the end of the pre-orthodontia era: There were a lot of
crooked teeth at that concert, not only in the audience but also on
the stage. In that way, revisiting the movie is like visiting Europe.
6. The dream was already over: Forget Altamont. Watch "Woodstock" and
it becomes apparent that rock 'n' roll had already become a huge
commercial enterprise, that some of the acts had become big and jaded
and that the party had already been crashed by a lot of not-cool
people, calling attention to themselves by dancing very slowly, with
wildly flailing arm gestures.
7. The glorious peak of the 1960s love generation was not Woodstock:
It was probably Monterey Pop, documented in D.A. Pennebaker's 1967
film of the same name. Girls actually attended, and every one of them
was pretty (or at least the movie was edited that way). The sun was
shining. And a sense came through, from the audience and on the
stage, that this was the beginning of something amazing.
It's an odd but true thing about life: When things seem as if they
can only get better, that's usually when they're at their best point.
That's precisely the moment that "Monterey Pop" captures. "Woodstock"
captures something else.
8. The culture war was already over, and the '60s generation won: As
foreign as the people at Woodstock may look to our eyes, they still
look like some kind of version of the modern. But when the filmmakers
go into town to talk to the residents, many of the townies look and
act as though it were 1935. It's striking. In the 40 years since,
casual dress, coarseness of expression and youth music have become
mainstream, and they've swept away the stiffness of the previous generation.
That's the moment that "Woodstock" captures. The one in which a
generation looked up and realized, hey, there are a lot of us, aren't
there? No one can stop us from taking over the world.
E-mail Mick LaSalle at email@example.com.
New DVD package celebrates 40th anniversary of festival that marked a
By BRUCE KIRKLAND, SUN MEDIA
Last Updated: 8th June 2009
NEW YORK -- Far out, man. Even 40 years later, Woodstock resonates
with a power beyond any other music concert ever staged. The
Woodstock Music and Art Fair: An Aquarian Exposition is integral to
American popular culture. In one legendary place name -- although the
festival was not even actually held there -- it captures the essence
of an era.
"It was a weekend full of a year's worth of moments for all of us,"
Michael Lang, the former head-shop hippy who was one of the original
Woodstock producers in 1969, tells Sun Media today.
The resonance is so powerful that new DVD and Blu-ray sets --
Woodstock: 40th Anniversary Ultimate Collector's Edition -- are a
major event in home entertainment. These three-disc beauties debut
tomorrow, dressed in tiny leather fringe vests and adorned with
reproduction memorabilia. But the focus is still on images and
recordings. They have been restored -- meticulously, beautifully and
controversially, in the case of modern tweaks to old live sessions.
The centrepiece is the 244-minute director's cut of Michael
Wadleigh's Oscar-winning, 1970 documentary (which he re-cut in 1994).
The sets offer fresh extras, including docs about the festival and
the film. The unburied treasure is Untold Stories (which is not
included in the separate two-disc set), 148 minutes of additional
concert footage, most unseen before, including performances by
Creedence Clearwater Revival, Jefferson Airplane, The Who, Joe
Cocker, Johnny Winter, Mountain and The Grateful Dead.
Wadleigh's film is the reason Woodstock is still famous and potent,
says Artie Kornfeld, another co-producer. "There wouldn't be a
Woodstock if there hadn't been a movie," he says.
"That's when the spirit of Woodstock started, because they documented
the history. The movie made the history. Otherwise, 'the event' would
have been Monterey, it would have been the summer of love."
Lang has a slightly different take, although he still concedes the
film was influential. "I think the legacy would have been powerful
anyway, but I think Michael's film gives you something tangible to
see. It encapsules the experience so well in every aspect that it was
able to give that experience to people around the world. I think that
is what really took the legend beyond the reality."
Wadleigh was the left-wing filmmaker who undertook the project. He
had already made a documentary about the American Communist Party,
which was founded in Woodstock in 1911 (Woodstock is about 60 km from
Bethel, the nearest town to Max Yasgur's dairy farm, where the
festival actually took place). Woodstock was also a base for the
likes of Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan and Alan Ginsberg.
"In other words, that village had a whole history going back to the
start of the 20th century of political, cultural, musical and
artistic activism," Wadleigh says. He also loved the Woodstock
festival's dove symbol and its new home -- Yasgur's farm -- after the
promoters were expelled from their first location, the nearby town of
"I did not like Monterey Pop," Wadleigh says of the 1968 concert film
about the famous 1967 festival, "because it had a backdrop. It was
just a stage and people sitting in lawn chairs. What kind of ambience
is this? But (Woodstock) promised to be something different: On a
farm. The dove also stood for me for political rights. So we had
ecology and equal rights and we had anti-war. So I thought: What a
Wadleigh now says of his film, "I think we did a decent, honest job
of not perverting the festival but really trying to use it as a
metaphor about what was happening in the Sixties. And I think we
poked a lot of fun at ourselves. I think we didn't become arch or
worshipful or lecturing. I always like a shuck and a jive. I like
humour and understatement."
But he did not like others taking credit for what he designed and
co-editor Thelma Schoonmaker put together. Wadleigh once bristled at
Martin Scorsese, who served as an assistant director and co-editor.
"Marty used to do drugs and, at one point took a lot mrore credit
than due for Woodstock," Wadleigh says now. While Scorsese "wrote us
an apology," the incident obviously still stings. But that is what
happens with an iconic event like Woodstock.