Woodstock (1970): Enduring Appeal and Historical Significance

The seminal documentary “Woodstock” is an important chronicle on any number of levels, artistic, historical and sociological.  It’s hard to think of another feature that surpasses this docu’s all-star roster.  Its list of performers reads like the who’s who of rock and folk, Joan Baez, Arlo Guthrie, The Who, Jimi Hendrix.

However, the appeal of “Woodstock,” and the reason why it has endured for forty years, resides not just in its music but in its historical and symbolic significance.  It’s a document that represents a brief, unique moment in American history, in which everything and anything seemed possible.  Holding a mirror, the movie captures the love mood, the spontaneity and the chaos of a whole era.

“Woodstock,” which won the 1970 Oscar for Best Documentary, is directed by Michael Wadleigh, but it’s two of its assistant directors-editors, Martin Scorsese and Thlema Schoonmaker, who had first met in a course at NYU Film School, that became famous afterwards.  Schoonmaker would edit all of Scorsese’s movies after (and including) “Raging Bull.”

It’s doubtful that a major Hollywood studio would stand behind such an event.  But in 1969, Warner put $100,000 into principal shooting, then another $900,000 into editing, and then another $1 million to buy the musical rights, resulting in a total investment of $2 million.

The three-day festival of “music and peace” held in upstate New York was meant to attract about 50,000 people, but ended up gathering over 400,000 people, the largest assemblage in history, as Max Yasger, the owner of the farming land, states in his emotional speech, “This has never happened before.”

The structure of the documentary, which depicts the events of three days, from August 15 to August 17, is largely chronological. We see the fields being prepared, the stage built, and then the traffic jams forming.  The event, planned for profit, was later declared a free concert, by necessity. Early on, Bill Graham, the concert promoter, advises the organizers to fill ditches with flaming oil to keep the gatecrashers out.  As is well known, within hours, the traffic in and out of the place was gridlocked.

Loose, immediate, unstructured (in the positive sense of the term), and lacking voice-over narration, “Woodstock” contains footage of the performances by Jimi Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane, and others. Santana’s act, featuring a thrilling drum solo from Michael Shrieve, is amazing to behold, as is Sly and The Family Stone’s performance of “I Want to Take You Higher.”

Meanwhile, we get glimpses of the colorful public, which in the course of three days braved Nature (pouring rains turned the place into mud), shared supplies, facilities, and accommodations, due to shortage in these departments.   It’s all about the sensorial experiences of the here and now, conveyed in graphic details, the pleasure of sharing, the fun of being surrounded by strangers and yet feel part of a social community.

No one is identified in the course of the film, but we get the name of the musicians through introductions made on stage.  Wadleigh and his crew get comments from the organizers, ordinary townsfolk who express amazement at the kids’ “good behavior,” a local, benevolent police chief, the Army dropping blankets and food from helicopters.

We see ordinary men concerned with feeding the hungry kids, carrying carloads of food to the park.  Hugh Romney (aka Wavy Gravy) from the Hog Farm, announces with pride, “we’re planning breakfast in bed for 400,000 people.” There’s a nice moment when the Port-O-San man cleans the toilets before confiding to the camera that he has one son out in the crowd and another fighting in Vietnam.  This is one of the few references to the controversial war, which was then at its height.

The environment of the concert is mellow and orderly, showing hippies getting stoned, caring for one another, bathing nude in the pond, skinny-dipping, and in a long shot a couple stripping their clothes and making love on the grass. The kids appreciate all of the music (even the anachronistic Sha-Na-Na), and enjoy in building the positive energy.

Interestingly, there is no evidence in the documentary about the generation strife, an issue much reported about in the news media and also evident in popular Hollywood movies of the era, such as “The Graduate,” in 1967, or “Easy Rider,” which was released the same year as Woodstock.

A young, liberal spirit, accompanied by his girlfriend, goes on record saying, “My father is different, but you know he has wisdom enough to allow me to be who I am. He has some kind of idea in his head that by doing what I’m doing I’ll learn for myself how to live.”

Wadleigh and his team used 16 camera, and almost each act was shot and edited differently, using slow-motion photography, split screens, dissolves, or close-ups.  The filmmakers allowed each performer to display his/her unique style without much interference in the recording or editing processes.

More importantly, Scorsese and his team have come up with a thoughtful and moving use of the split screen, which allowed another hour or two of great footage to be inserted into the final film.  According to some critics, “Woodstock” exemplifies the best use of the split screen, which for a while also was uase din mainstream American movies, such as The French Connection.”

The Hendrix guitar solo, which comes at the very end, is one of the film’s most iconic moments.  As Hendrix begins, we see the concert grounds after most of the people have parted, leaving behind piles of debris and wet blankets.  There is a nice shot of a barefoot guy, who finds a pair of shoes, tries them for size and then slides into them happily.  Then the field is beginning to fill with spectators until finally we see the whole public as Hendrix’s guitar does its magic.

Country Joe, poker-faced, leads the crowd through the anti-Vietnam “I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag.” Sha-Na-Na does a 1950s version of “At the Hop.” Joe Cocker and everybody else on stage and in the crowd sings “With a Little Help from My Friends.” One of the most moving moments is Joan Baez singing “Joe Hill,” and then putting down her guitar and singing “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,”

When Santana gets into his exciting rhythm, Wadleigh uses triple-screen, and frames the drummer with two bongo players.  Richie Havens is first shown backstage before he starts singing “Freedom.”  The camera first focuses on his thumb as it hits the guitar strings, then shows his foot pounding with the beat, and finally reveals his energized face, which stands in diametric opposition to his tired expression before the act.

Over the course of three hours, the docu offers numerous snippets of unrehearsed moments that have cumulative power.  The end result is a poignant chronicle of a new society, “Woodstock Nation,” shaped briefly and spontaneously at the festival before being dissolved and moving on.  Woodstock is a unique feature, at once summing up the zeitgeist and signaling the end of an era.

Credits Issues:

Over the past decade, there has been controversy over who did what on “Woodstock” and who deserves credit for the final cut.  The nominal credit is Michael Wadleigh, whose directing career is meager, and some historians feel that it’s Scorsese who ultimately shaped the narrative.

According to James Monaco, in his book American Film Now, “the direction of ‘Woodstock’ consisted simply of sending out ten or a dozen camera people with as much stock as they could carry and telling them to do their thing, shooting everything that happened during that historical weekend in upstate New York.  The crew came back with an overwhelming amount of footage—more than one hundred hours by some accounts.  The real creative job lay in reducing this amorphous mass of raw material into a running time of three hours and giving it shape and pace.  Scorsese and his crew did a magnificent job, and ‘Woodstock; remains one of the most notable models of the craft of editing since the Steinbeck editing table was invented.”

End Note

When shown on TV, the movie has been censored for reasons of nudity and profanity, particularly Country Joe and the Fish’s rendition of “Fish Cheer.”

The director’s cut includes an additional 45 minutes, with new sets by Janis Joplin and Jefferson Airplane, which were not in the original.