Woodstock & Cinema: Scrapbook Thoughts (Vol. 1)

In April 2022, I decided to embark on a journey to watch the cinematic material currently related to Woodstock Festival (founded by Woodstock Ventures), specifically the first event in August 15th, 16,th, 17th and 18th August 1969, Bethel NY. This is a scrapbook of cinema thoughts and understanding related to all materials Woodstock; documentaries, feature films, tv specials, as well as random thoughts about interviews and other pieces on the festival. Nearly half a million people attended over 3 Days of Love, Peace & Music in what was at both a nationally declared disaster area and at the same time one of the wildest gathering of musicians and creative talent in the 20th century, in protest of the Vietnam War and in search of peace. My thoughts on the cinematic visions of the films are below.

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So this is the only bit written after watching the first documentary. It is a revelation, a world of performers falling off the sheer edge of heaven. In sound they find release, reprise, and the foundations of communication. The performers are metal, built from a bunch of hippies and absolute free folk. Things which prevent peace are released in a sphere of mud, music, meltdowns. The power felt watching Hendrix, Santana, Joplin, Sly & The Family Stone, Ten Years After, Arlo Guthrie, Joe Cocker, Richie Havens, all these crazy crazy musicians just shredding in the arena. The camera is boiling with images of musicians in trances, the body on display in a way to accomodate all the shit of physically being in a officially declared ‘disaster area’. Founder Michael Lang said “I didn’t drink from any bottle I hadn’t opened myself” because of how food and drink at the fesitval had become laced with chemicals. The edge of infinity, in a culture of peace, for just three days is one of the boldest cinema experiences I’ve ever watched.

I saw the film over several days actually, the first film in a very long time I’ve split up into multiple viewings. Like a festival, this project is in those moments not at gigs, resting, sleeping, getting food. Talking to people, seeing who they are, why they would even go there. Hippies are enshrined in memory now, their potential in amber now, not flowering in youth. Being a hippie is old, I think I’m old. The people debating the worth and cost of such a colossal undertaking of distressed teenagers is worth recognising, the cop who supports the kids, the community members arguing on camera furious at the local distress.

Like an absolute diamond encased in a director’s cut version, the world of this film (with seven editors, Thelma Schoonmaker and Martin Scorcese among them) it represents a shining vision of human frames glittering across the screen in their thousands. It’s been a long time since I’ve been touched by a film’s hope for the future, however sentimental that may sound in the 2020s of sharp hyper capitalism. But I enjoyed myself, I had fun. Rip it up, have a ball.

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To know that Woodstock, the film, is responsible for reviving the massive financial losses the festival incurred, is something of an even greater achievement. The fact that it is one of the most radically documented films regarding music impact culture, and revolutionary spirit is an even greater one.

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It’s hard finding time to write for this. I don’t usually try a fragmented style, I want my focus on these subjects to have as much clarity as possible. Woodstock ’69 is already growing and evolving in my memory as I watch two further films on the subject. Michael Wadleigh’s seminal doc is from inside the very beating heart of the festival itself, it’s eyes roaming the festival in search of the next great revelation of meaning through experience. It is a delicate canvas dragged through the mud of those days, the spirit churning at its’ centre. And now I find myself with films from further out of the sphere, ‘Woodstock: Three Days That Defined A Generation’ (2019, Dir. Barak Goodman) and ‘Woodstock Revisited’ (2009, Dir. David McDonald).

These are films that are falling from the same tree, rippling like waves against cavern walls. The festival experience is applied through different lenses. That of historical broadcasting (Goodman’s film is a PBS funded documentary), and intricately styled memoir and recollections (McDonald’s documentary is highly experimental by televisual standards). But streams flow back into rivers, and both films are doing their best to understand and venerate an event which changed the face of the Earth.

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It was raining toads when we played. The rain was part of our nightmare. The other part was our sound man, who decided that the ground situation on the stage was all wrong. It took him about two hours to change it, which held up the show. He finally got it set the way he wanted it, but every time I touched my instrument, I got a shock. The stage was wet, and the electricity was coming through me. I was conducting! Touching my guitar and the microphone was nearly fatal. There was a great big blue spark about the size of a baseball, and I got lifted off my feet and sent back eight or 10 feet to my amplifier.

-Bob Weir, Grateful Dead Guitarist, Rolling Stone

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I am reading about Jefferson Airplane, Saturday’s star act, who didn’t take the stage until 8:00AM Sunday morning. Country Joe Farm said when he heard Jimi Hendrix play the ‘Star Spangled Banner’ that the guitar “would never be the same ever again.” Joan Baez performed six months pregnant with her husband in prison, she recalls with breeziness. A hurricane of spirit, 500,000 people listening to music. It’s hard to capture the fragments of this mosaic. In David McDonald’s film, he explores in depth the artistic community of utopian communes which preceded Woodstock’s happening; the actual town itself.

Roots of 19th & 20th century American utopian projects by intellectuals propelled the reality of this gathering from long before its’ manifestation in 1969. Artists had been gathering in the space for decades before, winding histories of bohemian festivals and turn of the century gatherings. The film is uncharacteristic in its’ cerebral take of a history of a local community, it’s public-access TV aesthetic really wild to visually interact with. It’s one of the only documentaries I’ve ever seen with serious frame fragmentation and multiple panelling combined with vivid psychedelic colour tinting. It’s interviews are friendly but opaque, tagged with a locals’ knowledge behind the camera of who’s who and who’s relevant. Woodstock as a cultural event the festival, resonates through a chasm of American history. But the spirit of the gathering is part of an Americana, a folklore.

It makes sense that the PBS documentary then, so heavily draws from Michael Wadleigh’s 1970 Woodstock discussed above then. Goodman’s doc is a shrine, a veneration of moments of a beating heart expanded with the context of those young enough to need some insight. A tribal memory of American spirit expanding in the sun, rays scattering out. Here the memory is viewed through the glass of an exhibition, moments of alive spirit now encased in the glass of informational viewing. There are elements of the Woodstock festival expanded on further here, Richie Havens tells a beautiful story about how “nervous he was to go on stage“, as audiences waited and festival managers waited for acts who hadn’t turned up yet. In these moments the film comes the most alive, opening the mind of the musician into the memory of their performances.

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Neil Young refused to be filmed during the festival, claiming the cameras were too distracting. There is a cascade of moments in the experience of that time which can only be reflected in those who were there. The environmental conditions prevent Ten Years After from keeping their instruments in tune. This place is just submerged in conditions, stories, experiences and moments of life which really see everything. 80 lawsuits were filed against them upon finishing, 5000 people requiring medical attention, several unfortunate deaths even (RIP the man who got crushed by a tractor). The town of Bethel, NY passed laws preventing any mass gatherings like this from occuring again.

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Creating Woodstock (2019, Dir. Mick Richards) is a vertiable feast of information on the festival, interviews abounding with anecdotes and stories of a whirlwind production force. In a deal struck with the city inspector, driving behind at 4AM to remove just painted ‘Stop Work’ orders from the city council risking arrest is just one of the many stories that really shook me. Richie Havens improvised his hit ‘Freedom’ after running out of material after being called back 5 times because no other artist’s had arrived. $1.4 million dollars in debt, bands told to ‘F.U.C.K Y.O.U’ in telegraphs while others like The Who refused to play at 6AM until they got paid in cash full. 50 serving stations double sided around 10 areas serving hundreds if not thousands of people a day, the logistics on display here . The inspector’s 15 year old daughter who ran off into the festival, and his futile search which distracted him from inspecting the sanitation of the area (causing a possible shutdown), was matched only by the wildness of having to convince artist after artist flying in on helicopters to consent to being filmed for the documentary without being paid.

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The battle for the site is laid out in much fuller detail here, the Mills farmer (who was responsible for the 2nd, unused site) was on the receiving end of death threats to prevent the hippies from tearing up the surrounding area. The investors/co-producers John P. Roberts and Joel Roseman get special veneration in their absolutely stunning personal and music business force to produce the festival, not only the crew pulling all nighters but everyone becoming exceptionally free together. Michael Lang and Artie Kornfield also get more time for their unique relationship, which allowed them to move from music recording studio dreams to event changing paradigm.

Jimi Hendrix: The Road to Woodstock (2014, Dir. Bob Smeaton) is only a supplementary addition. In the above documentary, one of the participants recounts how Jimi had flew in to the airport, hailed a ride with two random kids and was at the site in two hours somehow mysteriously. Smeaton’s documentary helps elaborate on how his backing band, Band of Gypsys (shout out Larry Lee), were not so lucky in their arrival in station wagons hours later. But his performance is a monumental zenith of guitar trance playing, and the documentary does include a performance of ‘Vilanova Junction’ and encore ‘Hey Joe’, as well as the extended performances featured in Wadleigh’s documentary. It doesn’t get to the heart of what he was doing there, but the artistry is self-evident.

Oh, and the parking lots were drenched in mud. Just a swamp of fertile farmland sinking under the weight of festivities, at one point after raining heavily on Sunday evening, weight from the crowd made the stage start sinking down the hill. Jimi Hendrix came out and shredded the morning sky, under some weathered conditions.

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I’m thinking about when Creedence Clearwater Revival went on stage at 3:30AM and said the crowd looked like a scene from ‘Dante’s Inferno’, playing for one lonesome soul with a lighter. I’m thinking about the fact that Jimi Hendrix’s live performance was released in complete, in both the Wadleigh version, and an alternate ‘Second Look’ performance which is in B&W (really interesting). I’m thinking about the voluminous amounts of people on screen in further representations of Woodstock memory, history and myth.

A Walk on the Moon (1999, Dir. Tony Goldwyn) is Woodstock in the Hollywood cultural memory, it’s extension only relevant to the interpersonal dynamics of Diane Lane, Liev Schreiber and Viggo Mortensen. Woodstock here represents a spiritual freeing of the self. A sequence where Lane’s hedonistic abandon takes her into some acid-tripped revealing of her self in front of daughter Anna Paquin, putting in innings as the wild stubborn teenager. Richie Havens ‘Freedom’ is used to astonishing effect here, the very liberation of souls in the crowd. Here Woodstock is a mirage to enter through, its’ romance and spirituality colliding with characters opening up to each other. It’s not the best material, but I get it.

Taking Woodstock (2009, Dir. Ang Lee) is another sort, a far more authentic mantra of what was happening. Centred on Eliot Tiber, a kid who through being able to approve his own permit to run a music festival in the town of Bethel, NY, leveraging a simple permit with great historical consequences. He connected with Michael Lang and associates to loan his family run motel as the basis for their headquarters of operations for the festival. As thousands of hippies descended on the surrounding area to get to Max Yasgur’s farm, the entire societal architecture around them was transformed to accomodate this mass gathering of people.

A lot of good performances here, history as fiction manafactures a lot of portrayals which really try and emulate the spirit of those involved in the festival’s creation. Using Wadleigh’s technique of multiple divided screens, conversations and scenes lap over each other with finesse. Lee stages beautiful one-take long shots of those in pilgrimage, all pulled with a steady grace towards the site. It sometimes misses, sure. Moments of Eliot gathering his will are empathetic, with some real spectacular performances by his parents, Imelda Staunton and Henry Goodman. Their transformations echo his, and Liev Schreiber also has a rather stunning turn as a security based sweetheart transvestite. Based on a real character she spent time protecting the Tibers from anti-festival protestors as well as Nazi-inspired youths attacking them for their Jewish heritage.

It’s important to note that the film deals with the danger of the events, though. Centred on the heart of players skirting gently around to see what happened to the people of Bethel as they experienced a mass cultural event. Tiber uncovers his sexuality, perception-distorting drugs, his family’s sad past; a lot is pushed through the main characters. Michael Lang even rides around on the horse, Jonathan Groff playing him in a strangely watchable way I can’t look away from. It ultimately rests its hands at the end of the experience, so as a film I can understand its’ mixed reviews and box office failure. The film links Woodstock’s significance to the 1968 Stonewall riots months earlier, and I appreciate the film trying to break from any one perspective so it can let the love in from the peripheries. That’s a great line.

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I didn’t watch Always Woodstock (2014, Dir. Rita Merson) because honestly it looks like a bridge too far, just awful. Love this review from The Dissolve though.

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Woodstock or Bust (2018, Dir. Leslie Bloom) is insane, even just skimming through it. Surface it’s just two girls wanting to play their music at Woodstock and trying to get there. But it’s surreal, connectedto the anti-war legacies in the bizarrest way, it shows just how far appropriation of the Woodstock spirit and iconography can go in entertainment. Pays homage to the festival’s folk roots by putting up the strangest low-budget spiritual connective tissue to the festival’s spirit . ‘Best ever bust.’ (groan).

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Peace, Love & Misunderstanding (2011, Dir. Bruce Beresford) deals with Woodstock in a way that’s both at once achingly banal but also appreciative of Woodstock spirit. It honours Jane Fonda, 60s spiritual child, Catherine Keener, Jeffery Dean Morgan (in a larger role than Taking Woodstock), Elizabeth Olsen, Nat Wolff, a cast of American talent in performances where they are trying at least. It’s Woodstock through a hollywood lens alongside a personal one. Woodstock is explored through the festival’s tourist trade and current situation, alongside generational conflict expressed between mom Keener & hippie Grandma Fonda. The film is painfully inoffensive, liberally indulging the ‘far out’ iconography of a generation it no longer really believes in, only to serve the needs of the story and the eventual familial re-union in drawn out dynamics. Keener and Morgan singing ‘The Weight’ is pretty cool though.

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[Highlights from the photographer being interviewed.] Still crazy that Santana was hallucinating while he was playing, seeing a snake on his guitar and eyes and teeth in the crowd. Max Yasgur got the best yield of corn after they replanted a crop at the end of the festival, probably because of all the human waste.

And for me, that’s been a real education, for sure. The whole thing with the movie and how they had to borrow money to get the film, you know? Things like that. 150 miles of film? 16-millimeter film?18 guys shooting 24-7, collapsing, having somebody take over for them when the collapsed and fell down, because of carrying that heavy camera around? Those are the real stories of Woodstock.

Baron Wolman, Rolling Stone

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RIP Carl Blackstead, who oversaw the recording and producing of the songs during the festival and for the 1970 documentary. Also RIP to Ravi Shankar’s master tapes, which to this day have never been found. The article linked here really dives into how much of the Woodstock documentary soundtrack was manipulated, warped into an artistic presentation of shape. Even in the mode of authenticity, hundreds of little changes have to be sculpted to make a film. There’s David Fricke’s sober take on the improbable accident of the festival, ‘a success and failure’ in equal measure is really important to take in. Events can escape themselves, becoming oversold and overexploited. Woodstock is on the cusp of the end, both year wise and culture. Altamont is coming. But Yasgur put up a sign saying ‘Free Water’ after he heard his neighbours were charging for it.

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I’ve been laying awake in the wake of watching Woodstock Diary (1994, Dirs. Chris Hegedus, Erez Laufer & D.A Pennebaker), a 3 hour day-by-day play of some of the other acts at the festival, unseen offcuts, and original interviews with some of the defining players. From the recording studio genesis, unseen performances from acts such as Bert Somner, Tim Hardin, Ravi Shankar, Quill, Mountain, Country Joe & The Fish, The Band, Johnny Winter, Paul Butterfield Blues Band (although I read this performance is actually a recording from an earlier gig in Whitelake), right up to Jimi Hendrix’s revelations on the guitar Monday morning. ‘Nightmare in the Catskills’, so said the New York times as the festival wound up.

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Shout out to the bank manager who flew in a helicopter at midnight to the bank to get the producers of the festival their cashier’s checks to pay the bands. To the Hog Farm Commune as well. The lady who fed everyone on granola as well, and refused to buy even sugar or salt! Hundreds of thousands of people. Mad. The people who marched on the fast food stand overpricing their food and burned it down! They still tried to help him out, but mad.

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I think I’m standing above a wide hill, in Yasgur’s farm, surrounded by people. I can hear the music. I can see the people. I can feel everything. It’s been a ride. – scene in Taking Woodstock where the people turn into the ocean.

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I’m out of this whirlwind now. Just like everyone else, I’ve left the festival, with only memories to keep me company. A friend told me that one of her family friend’s had left mid-way through a set performed by a “Mr. James Helix” (Jimi Hendrix), didn’t appreciate the guitar.

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Woodstock will exist forever. Untold recordings, footage from collector’s editions, autobiographical books, vinyl liner notes; they’re all artifacts from a memory of collective expression. Woodstock’s roots superseded its’ foundations. The town since thrives on the trade of American artworks to this day, for better and for worse. Peace, love and music for 3 days continuously, and genuinely.

And cinema has helped in innumerable ways to ensure a legacy of the festival’s essence. From searingly real direct cinema documentaries to varying levels of Hollywood artificiality; the authentically earnest to the sanctimoniously boring, they understand Woodstock ideals as they fit the confines of other drives, plot situations, and character motivations. All those feedback into the real world. The festival attendees had to do much of the same, filtering back from their natural exodus into American society.

From interviews I saw, the founders and makers seemed happy with how everything turned out. Heritage, safe in the glass case of the past can sometimes obscure the mechanics and engineering behind an event which sat at the crossroads of politics, art, music and business. The four points of a star which helped it manifest into a cultural meteor that hit the ground so hard we’re still feeling it’s reverberations. Woodstock being free was an accidental stroke of genius, and its rare that enough minds get together to will the conditions to make something that important. Later posts will deal with the legacy of anniversary concerts, Black Woodstock, and other associated materials. That is a more complex set of affairs, which deserves its own understanding. Woodstock’s limitations are duly noted sure, but for free I can’t think of a better concert to have not gone to.

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Woodstock & Cinema: Scrapbook Thoughts (Vol. 1)

One thought on “Woodstock & Cinema: Scrapbook Thoughts (Vol. 1)

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