Reviews

Woodstock 40th Anniversary Edition

4

An iconic fest, packaged at its best...

“In every way, we were trying to make an ‘experience’ film,” claims Michael Wadleigh, director of Woodstock: “a kind of substitute experience for those people who were there or weren’t there.”

Tough call for home viewers four decades on from the ’69 peace-and-musical festival. But after 2001’s bummer of a no-extras DVD, this four-disc set edges closer to three days of hippie heaven. Or at least as close as you’ll get without frying your brain, losing your shoes and joining a hog-farm commune.

Much that was previously missing now features alongside the 225-minute Director’s Cut. Dodge disc one’s downer of a doc on the Woodstock Museum at Bethel Woods: the place looks hip but the extra is just a bread-heads’ puff-piece. Instead, drop disc three’s 18-track salvo of freshly released performances. Mountain, Creedence and Johnny Winter are among those revived from Wadleigh’s astonishing 120 miles of film.

There’s also the miracle of the Grateful Dead’s set, which was delayed due to a downpour and saw the band somewhat tired and emotional by stage-time. Dead-heads will relish ‘Turn On Your Love Light’, others will marvel that a band so seemingly zonked could even stand, let alone stretch one song out over a five-day jam.

On disc four, the exhaustive business of 21 minidocs includes features on ’Stock’s film stock, the festival’s on-the-hoof organisation, the longhairs’ tussles with suits over control of the negative and co-editor Martin Scorsese’s opening-night nerves over the lack of control.

“It did put us into a manic state,” reflects Marty, still sounding like a working definition of manic. Humorously, members of Ten Years After wonder if the hippies were right about the US government causing the rain. Clearly, some people didn’t get the memo about the brown acid.

But the film itself mitigates 21st-Century cynicism and sniggering. Wadleigh’s on-the-spot direction combines with all-angle editing – Scorsese regular Thelma Schoonmaker orchestrated it – to plunge you into the festival zone, which was propelled by peace but looked like war.

From hash to Hendrix, mud to marijuana, the result isn’t just gig footage – it’s a living snapshot of youth at a key countercultural moment. The idealism may well have been tarnished by time but the sense of everyone being in it together proves palpable. As one pundit puts it, “Everyone looked the same. Drowned rats!”

You probably weren’t there. The sight of all that mud and acid-ravaged humanity might make you glad you weren’t. Even so, from shots of hippies hitting the site to the oddly sad come-down scenes of post-festival wreckage, Woodstock’s power lies in its lasting ability to conjure up nostalgia for an ‘experience’ you never had.

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    • FBEXanthopoul

      Jan 21st 2012, 16:56

      4

      www.unsungfilms.com, by Theo Alexander Jan 15, 2012Theo Alexanderin FilmmakersNo Comments It was 1969 when a young Michael Wadleigh found himself on his way to a Max Yasgur’s farm, followed by a large and excited camera crew to document what was soon to become the world-renowned ‘Woodstock Music & Art Fair’ and the three most talked about days of peace and music. This footage ended up being much, much more than a straight-up documentary of the festival. It gave the director, Michael Wadleigh the recognition he so greatly deserved and through his eyes, he was able to give everybody a look into whatever these three days were, or became. In an interview, Wadleigh stated that he’d tried to capture ‘a timeless event, like the Canterbury Tales’ and that ‘the general human condition can be looked at within a metaphorical construct called Woodstock’ – and this, I think, is what it was. Wadleigh had succeeded in capturing what it really is to be human, displayed in a huge field with music, the stage and the greatest bands on the planet. All our pleasure, pain, insecurities, protest, war and peace can be found there in that festival. Wadleigh arrived there on the 15th of August 1969, after deciding on the project around 3 months before, in the May of that same year. Woodstock was to be his directorial debut and his last until his 1981 horror-thriller Wolfen, which credited him as a director and a screenwriter. 18 years later, he directed the video documentary, Jimi Hendrix: Live at Woodstock in 1999. Before Woodstock, he had only been accredited for a number of projects as a cinematographer, under the slightly altered name, Michael Wadley. It was around the time of Woodstock’s release that he started working under his current name, and 4 years later that he served as cinematographer for the Janis Joplin based documentary, Janis, in 1974. Michael was born in Ohio, 1942 and his interest in films kind of broke through in his early twenties, when he entered the industry as a cinematographer for a few low-budget independent films like I Call First in 1967 and My Girlfriend’s Wedding in 1968. During these years, although the films he had been a part of met critical acclaim throughout independent and underground circles, financial and commercial success was minimal. The director, at this point, was associating himself with films that were trying, ceaselessly, to speak to smaller, countercultural audiences. It was only until Woodstock that he first experienced any exposure on a larger scale – and Woodstock exploded all over the country, while people everywhere devoured his work. On release, it earned over 50 million dollars in America alone. This impact was an accurate indication of the reputation that Wadleigh enjoyed after this enormous project, and the impact that this project, and subsequent other work would continue to have for years and years to come, all over the world. It was that particular time that intrigued and encapsulated Wadleigh more than anything – leading him to put together his biggest and most established piece of work. It was the end of the sixties, before the dust had fully settled, and the era had a heavy impact on his work. When he decided on documenting the festival, he’d done so as all these great musicians at the peak of their powers had come together to perform. Wadleigh was a 27-year old filmmaker, who had been swept up by the music and the ever-growing counterculture, and when he was asked about the music at Woodstock, he emphasised Hendrix, ‘it was virtually like he took his own guts and strung them in place of the strings, really playing his body’ – and really the director’s adoration for the guitarist is entirely evident. I think, as a filmmaker, if you can succeed in capturing just a fragment of that feeling, and of the energy that can come out of live music, then you’ve succeeded in doing what so many filmmakers try to do all their lives. Theo Alexander at www.unsungfilms.com

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