Woodstock Turns 50

New Documentary Takes a Trip Beyond the Music

Woodstock turns 50 this month.  The Fyre Fest-like attempts to celebrate its anniversary with yet another concert have finally come to an end.  It’s probably for the best.  Remember Woodstock ‘99?  Fifty years after the fact, it’s still not even clear what Woodstock even means.  Did the beautiful chaos at Yasgur’s farm really create a utopian society in three days?  And if so, did that change accomplish anything?

 


WOODSTOCK: THREE DAYS THAT DEFINED A GENERATION ★★★★(4/5 stars)
Directed by: Barak Goodman and Jamila Ephron
Running time: 106 min.


 

The Woodstock movie, released the following year, both documented and created the definitive recollection of the festival.  The split-screen approach, Santana tripping his balls off on mescaline, and that couple covered in the blanket (who are still together, apparently) have all become cultural touchstones.  The 1999 movie A Walk On The Moon, an underrated classic, did a great job of showing how the “3 Days Of Peace, Love, And Music” looked to the outside world.

 

 

Barak Goodman’s Woodstock: Three Days That Defined A Generation premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival back in April.  “Do we need yet another film about Woodstock” was the message of many reviews, but I think Goodman’s film suggests we do.  The documentary knows you’ve seen the Woodstock movie and that you’ve already experienced all those definitive moments through it.  This looks at basically everything BUT the music.  That doesn’t mean there isn’t any in it.  But the footage included is the grainier stuff you haven’t seen.  The movie’s overall message is how it all came together and what it felt like to be there.  All the interviews are included only through audio, with vintage images from the 1969 concert.

There are accounts galore that you haven’t heard.  The seed money for the festival came from the Polident fortune.  The promoters went to arenas and baseball stadiums with stopwatches to approximate how many toilets were needed.  The festival was originally intended for Walkill, but shot down by local politicians.  The decision to turn the event into a free concert largely stemmed from the fact that they only had time to complete either the fences or the stage.  Fortunately, they opted for the latter.

Just a small gathering of friends. Photo: Barry Levine

The best moments of the film occur through these little-known details.  It seems like it was impossible to experience it all at the time.  There were makeshift head shops in the woods, a secondary Hog Farm (Wavy Gravy’s crew), and all that skinny dipping.  People would explore, be nursed back to health from bad trips (not all from the brown acid), and then re-emerge.  The only ones who could witness all the music were the crew members backstage.  Thankfully, it will all finally be released shortly in a 38 CD boxed set by Rhino.  It has already sold out, by the way, as it was limited to (you guessed it) 1,969 copies.

But besides reminding us that it was about much more than the music, the film includes many shots of people being filmed.  There is one of a comely hippie girl posing against a tree.  It reminded me of Jean-Luc Godard’s Sympathy For The Devil movie in its awkward staging.  Is it possible that much of what we know about Woodstock, primarily through the movie, is similarly false?

A forest head shop at Woodstock. Photo: John Dominis

The most impactful parts of Goodman’s movie is the interviews with the local residents and the archival footage of Max Yasgur himself.  Yasgur might have seemed like a typical Upstate NY Republican, but was admittedly moved by the lack of violence and destruction during the festival.  The kids did what they said they would do, he admitted.  They did nothing BUT enjoy the music.  Other townspeople had similar experiences.  Food was donated right out of people’s kitchens to be helicoptered to the concert site.  “We might be hicks,” one of them reasoned, but still good people.

A grub line at Woodstock. Photo: John Dominis

Beginning with Altamont a few months later, it has been impossible to replicate what happened in Bethel during that August weekend in 1969.  I’ve attended more than my share (and yours too) of shows that have tried to conjure up “the spirit of Woodstock.”  But maybe we shouldn’t try because we never really understood what it was about.  If we did, we’d know better.

Check out Woodstock: Three Days That Defined A Generation when it airs on PBS as part of the “American Experience” series.

Ross Warner

Ross Warner has been steeped in pop culture since he appeared on MTV's "Remote Control: Out Of The Basement Tour" in 1989. He's written tons of articles on music and movies and has appeared in Cinema Retro and American Heritage multiple times. But he's is probably best known for addiction to the San Diego, now Los Angeles, Chargers of whom he was named 2002's Fan Of The Year. He's just finished his first book, Drunk On Sunday.

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