It’s funny. I hadn’t seen WOODSTOCK in its entirety in probably over 20 years. I had watched performance clips on Youtube and, of course, remember certain moments and statements and “characters” from the film, but I had completely forgotten what an absolute masterful piece of cinema it was. WOODSTOCK is so much more than a compilation of musical performances. And what’s frightening is how easily the film could have been shot or reduced to that very thing if it had fallen into the hands of different filmmakers other than the team that ultimately defied the impossible and brought this film to life.
Director Michael Wadleigh, along with a ragtag team of some of the best documentary cameramen and women ever assembled, ace editor Thelma Schoonmaker and a very young editor and assistant director, Martin Scorsese, managed to work through some of the most difficult circumstances imaginable to capture the entire experience that was WOODSTOCK.
We all know the basic story: They expected between 150,000 to 200,000 people max to attend. They ended up with over half a million. A small city. No one was prepared. But that didn’t matter. From audience to performers to coordinators, everyone worked in unison to pull off an event that was almost entirely peaceful and cooperative. And people from all over came to help with medical attention, food, shelter, whatever was needed to turn this state of emergency into one of the greatest events ever successfully undertaken. It truly was an unintended statement to the world at large. It was proof of something better, a way of thinking, a way of being. It wasn’t just artifice, but a sampling of humanity. It was a living alternative. And everything that was said and done then, still resonates today.
And the film puts you right smack in the middle of it all. But it does so with a unique and powerful vision. Shot entirely on 16mm, the film was designed for and released in the 70mm format. Quite a leap. But Wadleigh and team pulled it off with some of the most daring split screen opticals ever seen. Suddenly, the stories within the story start to appear. What is being said or done on one side of the frame is being commented on, visually and otherwise, on the other. And the performances are each approached with a unique individuality to best capture the feel and flavor of the music, the performers, the environment in which they were playing and the audience to whom they were playing for. It wasn’t just about capturing the music, it was about becoming part of the whole event. Thanks to the visionary talents of the folks behind the cameras and in the editing room, WOODSTOCK the film doesn’t just show you the event, it is an elemental part of the event. And because of that, we are as well.
A great example is the CANNED HEAT segment of the film. One camera, one take. It’s a testament to Wadleigh’s eye, fluid camerawork and sense of the music (he was the handheld camera operator for this particular shot) and the great restraint and vision of the editors. It’s a powerhouse moment that personalizes the performers and the environment around them. Around us. There is no desire on the part of the filmmakers to disguise the fact that they are there. They are as much a part of what is happening on that stage as the band members themselves.
Then there’s THE WHO. Suddenly, we find ourselves with three separate frames within our single 70mm frame. The juxtaposition of images, many simply duplicates reversed to create a moving, breathing bookend to the center image, offer us not only different angles on the performers and crowd, but enhance–nay, recreate–the psychedelic and energetic nature of the music itself. It’s an all-absorbing journey deep into the psyche of the adventure that was taking place on Max Yasgur’s unsuspecting farm that evening. It is as much a visual feast of great complexity and wonder as it is a testament to the band’s unmatched musicianship and tirelessly vital performance.
And after each band completes their set, we return once again to the ongoing saga happening behind the scenes. Be it one hell of a rainstorm that nearly stopped the show in its tracks, or the thoughts, fears, hopes and dreams of the people attending, or the amazement, horror or joy of the local townsfolk at witnessing the behavior of their new neighbors, or the social impact one senses the event is already starting to have long before its conclusion is in sight, WOODSTOCK cinematically captures a world that is, in many ways, still with us.
While the “hippie” movement and Summer Of Love have faded into history, the remnants of those recent times have been absorbed into our everyday society, our very way of life. Health food stores have grown into chains, yoga is now as commonplace as school, spirituality has moved into new regions where the choices are endless and mainstream. It’s a far cry from the world that those who attended Woodstock may have envisioned, but changes were made nonetheless. Yeah, we still have wars and we moved into an age of greed and consumership that reflects the fear and confusion inherent in all societies and we still exhibit some of our puritanical roots, but we also have rallies and protests and the ability to call our leaders out and ask for something better. These are all things that were validated and given life in these times and the times that came before.
While there are many who believe the movement was misguided, short-lived and, ultimately, a failure, one has only to look around to see the effects it has had on the world in which we live. And the music that reflected the era, that spoke to a generation and beyond, is still some of the most powerful and heartfelt musical expression to be seen or heard anywhere throughout our long history. And WOODSTOCK the film shows us that in all its shades of light and dark. One need only witness the performances by Janis Joplin or Jimi Hendrix to understand and realize that there were geniuses in our midsts. And I do not throw that word around lightly. These were men and women who tapped into something rare, that segment of humanity who grace us with their inner voice, with a talent that belies their youthfulness, with a form of expression that deeply touches the soul of man and reveals it, naked and for all to see, with exquisite delicacy and wonder.
WOODSTOCK: THE DIRECTOR’S CUT is part of that revelation. And I am grateful for its existence. Both for its cultural value, its spiritual value, and its extreme artistic value, which I was far too young to comprehend when last I viewed the film. It is a place I hope to return to again and again. And next time, perhaps, I will take some others with me.