By Patrick Crain
The first person we see is Sidney Westerfield, a grinning, amiable tavern owner in “Mongaup Valley, New York State.” He is a man who has seen no small amount of years, so much so that he’s still calling movie theaters “the moving pictures.” The look on his face is both awed and grateful. His tone sets the table. “The kids were wonderful,” he says, almost wistfully. “Nobody can complain about the kids.” He also promises that whoever does see the film that has documented this phenomenon “will really see something.”
It’s a little hard to fathom Woodstock in this day and age. In a time where everything from casual meetups to nationwide protests can be organized over a social media app on a phone, the thought of half a million kids caravanning from all over the lower 48 just to descend on the otherwise unremarkable town of Bethel, New York for a music and arts festival is kind of mind-blowing. Almost more astonishing than that was that so many of them just went on blind faith that they would somehow be able to get into the festival without tickets. And there were so many of these that, within hours, the fences were torn down and anyone who wanted in, got in.
But I suppose the only thing in any of that that’s unfathomable is that it occurred in a time of AM radio, three network channels, and, usually, two editions of the daily newspaper. If my WiFi is down for an hour, I feel like I’m Henry David Throreau. But somehow these folks came from all over for a festival that was more or less pitched to residents of New York only.
Woodstock, the documentary film that was released in theaters in 1970, is the grand spectacle from the ground floor; a sunkissed narrative of a small nation-state of fired up young people who were doing their best to change the system for the good with peace, love, and music. And, indeed, director Michael Wadleigh (Wolfen) and editor Thelma Schoonmaker (and, to some degree, co-director and co-editor Martin Scorsese) assemble the film as a beautiful ode to the power of communal spirit which netted an Oscar for Best Documentary and earned Schoonmaker her first Oscar nomination (a competitive technical Oscar nomination for a documentary is a RARE bird). From the opening montage of the unspoiled farm of Max Yasgur as the advance team arrives and begins to assemble to stage to the final moments of a very much changed landscape that has been worn down to its muddy foundation, Woodstock is an ode to lightning in a bottle; a monumental bacchanal that, despite the anniversaries and spin-off/knock-off festivals that actually eclipsed it in terms of attendance (the Watkins Glen Festival with the Grateful Dead, the Band, and the Allman Brothers drew a bigger crowd), remains its very own special chapter in American history.
The film more or less follows the three days of the festival, doing a masterful job of mixing the musical performances with the captured moments with festival goers and the citizens of Bethel. The practical concerns of the people who actually live there and are then forced to live through what turned into a disaster area butt up against the encroaching hippies who seem to wander in and out of the frame like the living dead in Romero’s rural Pennsylvania. But this is in the service of being even-handed. Woodstock, the film (and, by extension, its soundtrack), needed to be a hit to help offset the losses from the actual show and these folks weren’t going to make a bucket of money bumming people out by showing a three hour movie about a bunch of pissed off townies and farmers and their economic hardships during the Woodstock festival. No, Woodstock had to be first and foremost a concert film because, after all, that’s what was at the backbone of the festival in the first place.
And as for the performances in Woodstock, they’re mostly all pretty terrific. Standout moments belong to Richie Havens having the unenviable task of opening the whole affair and setting the tone with the electrifying “Handsome Johnny” and “Freedom;” a pregnant Joan Baez bringing the vocal lumber to “Joe Hill” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” in the middle of a very cold night; Crosby, Stills and Nash pulling off a flawless “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes;” Joe Cocker overcoming his backing singers who seem to be lost in the sauce of a different key during a powerful, career making cover of “With a Little Help From My Friends;” Sly and the Family Stone mostly setting the stage on metaphoric fire with a version of “I Wanna Take You Higher” that will get you pregnant; and Santana’s rendition of “Soul Sacrifice” which contains a jaw-dropping and borderline ridiculously sublime drum solo by Michael Shrieve, then just barely 20 years old and the second youngest performer at the whole festival that will get you even pregnant-er.
And not completely undersold is the darker side of Woodstock. As mentioned before, it touches on the community unrest and the conflicts between the conservative mentality with the more progressive and lax townsfolk. And the film famously includes the inconvenient rainstorm which created a disgusting swamp of mud which, occurring on day three, was probably the last straw for some. There are folks on bad trips, people emotionally overwhelmed by the situation on the ground, and then Sha Na Na shows up for some fucking reason.
And a film as sprawling as Woodstock is going to be bound to be as famous for what DIDN’T make it as it is for what did. The end of Abbe Hoffman’s street cred was famously delivered by Pete Townshend when the former climbed up on stage to go on a typical rant about John Sinclair and the latter knocked him off of the stage. That’s not included. Credence Clearwater Revival, the first band contracted to play, drew such a lousy play time (12:30 a.m on Sunday following a set by the Grateful Dead that was capped with a fifty minute rendition of the Pigpen-fronted “Turn on Your Lovelight”) that John Fogerty disallowed the band’s appearance in the film or on the subsequent soundtrack citing a substandard performance. And touched upon but not really explored is just what a financial disaster all of it was. If organizers Artie Kornfeld and Michael Lang’s “Far Outs” and “Outta Sights” were currency, then they might have broken even. But as they stand around with dopey grins on their face as their capitalistic venture gives way to socialism when the fences come down with a quickness and the paid festival becomes a free one, Lang and Kornfeld’s eyes look glazed over and in a certain kind of shock that belie their supposed antiestablishmentarianism.
Even more perfumed in nostalgia is the longer director’s cut which was released in 1994 to coincide with the festival’s 25th anniversary as it incorporates sets from Canned Heat, Jefferson Airplane, and Janis Joplin. In a lot of ways, these are mostly backwards glancing as the presence of Janis, who would die within two years of her performance, seems necessary if only to remember that, yes, Woodstock had an edge of loss that was felt a year after the film came out in the theaters. As joyous as the Canned Heat set is (most especially when a fan bounds onto the stage and bums a cigarette from singer Bob Hite), it lacks the dazzle of Schoonmaker’s split-screens and multi-angled coverage feeling more like raw footage thrown into the pool for a bigger party. And the longer cut also adds back to Jimi Hendrix’s performance, elongating the electrifying but incredibly sad end of the festival, forcing the viewer to perhaps reconsider the film’s denouement in the shadow of Altamont which, in 1970, didn’t mean the same thing to the Boomers as it did in 1994.
But, honestly, it’s probably best to remember Woodstock as a golden memory and not as the realistic, muddy sump hole that left starving hippies gnawing out the last bit of watermelon as if they had been banished to a weird kind of hell on earth. No. The kind of grim reckoning that was upon America was but weeks away on the other side of the country when The Rolling Stones would get over their skis. On the contrary, Woodstock drives most scenes to an upbeat ending and presses the point by focusing on the goodness of everyone (the Port-O-San Man is a national treasure). And it’s in this spirit that, before snapping back to the pristine Yasgur farm to begin a recap montage over which the closing credits will roll, the last moment we see in Woodstock is an aerial view of the festival at its most swollen; a massive and unthinkable dream come true. It actually happened and you’ll always have the memories. It’s a beautiful snapshot of the determination and boundless energy of the young.
Regardless of the sociological ramifications of the Woodstock generation and the kind of cynical thought process that naturally occur when one luxuriates into middle age, my mind still likes to think about Woodstock in terms of the open-faced, plaid-clad girl who pops up to talk about being asked to tell a stranger about his wild eyes. Her revelation that she has to get her sister back home in time for court seems like quite a task but her follow-up that reveals that her sister got lost somewhere in the crowd during Richie Havens makes one’s eyes widen. After all, this is now a sea of people and Richie Havens was the first performer. How in the world will this even realistically happen? Will the communal spirit that drove all of these people to Woodstock in the first place be the thing that will draw these two siblings back together through the thick of the throng? Perhaps that’s the most fitting thing that can be said about the prevailing spirit of Woodstock. Regardless of its inherent naïveté, somehow, someway you kind of figure that she’s going to find her sister and, as John Sebastian said, “everything is gonna be all right.”