Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Celluloid Ramblings: WOODSTOCK, et. al.

by JB
“No rain! No rain! No rain!”

This Thursday marks the 50th anniversary of the famous Woodstock Music and Arts Festival that would go on to become a best-selling album, an Oscar-winning documentary, and a cultural touchstone for a generation. Given that… ahem… ahem… I am the only one currently associated with F This Movie! who was actually ALIVE at the time of the original concert; I feel it is incumbent upon me to say a few words about it.
PLEASE NOTE: “Hippie optimism” is one of the few things about which I am not cynical. The weekend of the festival, only two people died there (one by drug overdose and one in a tractor accident) making it the most crime free city of its size in the country. Two babies were born there; I would like to meet them. I still believe many of the tenants of early hippie ideology: that the country would be a better place with a more open mind and bigger heart, that politicians take this country in some “Un-American” directions but this county needs to become MORE American, and that the Vietnam War was morally wrong. The problem, I think, was that many fathers at that time had fought in WWII, an arguably justified war, and now saw no problem marching their sons off to an inarguably unjustified war.

“Well, come on all of you, big strong men
Uncle Sam needs your help again
He's got himself in a terrible jam
Way down yonder in Vietnam
So put down your books and pick up a gun
We're gonna have a whole lotta fun

And it's one, two, three
What are we fighting for?
Don't ask me, I don't give a damn
Next stop is Vietnam
And it's five, six, seven
Open up the pearly gates
Well there ain't no time to wonder why
Whoopee! we're all gonna die [….]

Come on mothers throughout the land
Pack your boys off to Vietnam
Come on fathers, and don't hesitate
To send your sons off before it's too late
And you can be the first ones on your block
To have your boy come home in a box.”

"I Feel Like I'm Fixin' To Die Rag"
--Country Joe McDonald
I have always been a tremendous fan of Michael Wadleigh’s 1970 documentary Woodstock. The best screening of that I ever attended was at the Roger Ebert Overlooked Film Festival; Wadleigh was in attendance and joined Roger after the screening for a fascinating Q & A.

There’s so much to love about Woodstock: the fact that the film exists at all, which is a miracle because the filmmakers had to shoot film and record sound under crazy, siege-like conditions; the groundbreaking editing, which includes split-screen and multiple image effects pioneered by a team that included Thelma Schoonmaker and a young Martin Scorsese; that the three hour long film includes no narration and the only titles onscreen are to identify people and bands; and the varied and dynamic music acts on display. It’s the complete package. It is at once a wild concert film and an exacting documentation of a specific moment in this country’s history.
I love the opening montage of workers building the stage set to Canned Heat’s “Going Up the Country;” I love Richie Haven’s performance of “Freedom,” the first time he ever performed that song; I love the interviews with locals in the town of Bethel, especially the short, angry, cigar-smoking man who shouts, “They’re all on the pot!” and the kindly grocery-store owner who mentions how polite all the kids have been and reminds everyone that, when kids are hungry, you need to feed them; I love the pregnant Joan Baez singing “Joe Hill” after telling the story of her husband getting arrested for evading the draft; I love John Sebastian, recruited to perform though he was only attending the festival, singing a blissed out “Younger Generation” and exhorting the audience to “pick up a little garbage on your way out;” I love Santana’s performance of “Soul Sacrifice” and Joe Cocker’s performance of “With a Little Help from my Friends;” I love Jimi Henrix’s mind-bending rendition of the “Star Spangled Banner,” replete with guitar approximations of the sounds of rockets and bombs; and I love Max Yasgur, the owner of the farmland that hosted the festival, addressing the crowd of 500,000, saying:

“I'm a farmer. I don't know how to speak to twenty people at one time, let alone a crowd like this. But I think you people have proven something to the world—not only to the Town of Bethel, or Sullivan County or New York State, you've proven something to the world. This is the largest group of people ever assembled in one place. We have had no idea that there would be this size group, and because of that, you've had quite a few inconveniences as far as water, food, and so forth. Your producers have done a mammoth job to see that you're taken care of... they'd enjoy a vote of thanks. But above that, the important thing that you've proven to the world is that a half a million kids—and I call you kids because I have children that are older than you—a half million young people can get together and have three days of fun and music and have nothing but fun and music, and I God bless you for it!”
In fact, I love the original film so much, and was so familiar with it, that I am not the biggest fan of the 1994 Director’s Cut, which adds 40 minutes of mostly musical performances to the film. I enjoy the music, but I feel the original cut’s music-to-event ratio gets knocked off balance. It would have been better to put the extra material on some sort of bonus disc as a supplement.

PBS recently premiered a new documentary, Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation, directed by Barak Goodman. It’s a solid documentary, though I think it relies too heavily on footage from the Wadleigh film. Goodman does manage to corral a large number of original festivalgoers for interviews. In an interesting directorial decision, the audience hears their contemporary voices and they are identified on screen in the archival footage, but none of them are shown in the current day. Could Goodman have not wanted his hippie documentary to feature a parade of talking heads in their mid- to late-70s? Because the film was made for PBS, anyone with a cable television subscription can watch the documentary this month On Demand. Despite a few quibbles, I still recommend it.
Finally, old reliable Rhino Records debuts a new 10-disc box set of the concert this week (Sorry, the 38-disc limited edition that came in a real wooden box with a guitar strap is sold out!) Titled Woodstock: Back to the Garden, this is the first box set ever to include every act that played Woodstock, including acts like the Grateful Dead, The Band, and Creedence Clearwater Revival that did not appear in the famous film. I picked this one up at Beatlefest last weekend, and I am looking forward to listening to it for the next couple of weeks. My box came with a tie-dyed Woodstock bandana to tie back the hair I no longer have. #hippietoupee

Here’s the trailer for the new Woodstock set:

So, while it is in the news this week, why not take this timely opportunity to acquaint yourself (or re-acquaint yourself) with the original documentary film or some of this terrific music? It is a wonderfully entertaining time capsule from a very different time. Oh, and one more thing:

“To get back to the warning that I’ve received—you might take it with however many grains of salt you wish—the brown acid that is circulating around us is not specifically too good. It's suggested that you do stay away from that. Of course it’s your own trip, so be my guest. But please be advised that there’s a warning on that one, okay?”


  1. I've never seen this doc but you've convinced me I should. Thanks for an entertaining and educational column, as always, JB!

  2. Woodstock is a doc that literally everyone with a passing knowledge of music or film making should absolutely check out. It's a well made and interesting capture of an extremely iconic time in music history and you truly feel like you are there. I love it.

  3. Looks like only the directo's cut is available on bluray

  4. Yes, I should have made that more clear in the column, the director’s cut has virtually replaced the original, from blu-ray to Turner Classic Movie broadcasts.

    1. well, damn. but to be fair, people often assume director's cut is automatically better than original cut, which is often true, but not always. why don't they offer both cuts like a normal company