“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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