Monday, 15 April 2013

Woodstock (1970) - Michael Wadleigh

3 Days of Peace & Music ran the tagline on the poster for the ‘Woodstock Music & Art Fair’ which took place over four days in August 1969. If they’d just worked the words ‘mind altering drugs’ and ‘biblical weather’ into their slogan they wouldn’t have been too far from the truth. Of course Woodstock is now one of that eras most defining moments, at the time though it was just another festival. Today just hearing or reading the word Woodstock conjures up images of stoned greasy haired kids dancing about and sliding through mud, but back before the festival it was a country retreat for a small crowd of artistic types (most famously Bob Dylan) who wanted out of the city life. The fact that the Woodstock Festival didn’t actually take place at Woodstock, but actually some 45 miles down the road is just typical of the zonked out nature of this iconic gathering of tribes.

Thank heavens for Michael Wadleigh then and his idea to gather up a film crew and head out to document the event. He hit on the brainwave that the audience were just as interesting as the performers and shot hours of film of hippie kids rolling in mud, talking rubbish, sucking on tiny yellow spliffs, getting naked, waffling on at length about drugs, war and The Man and a whole host of other things. Wadleigh arrived early enough to be able to capture the transformation of Max Yasgur’s farm, filming the construction of the stage and capturing the locals bemusement (and later anger) about what was descending upon their little hamlet.

The footage itself is great, mainly handheld, it all feels very unrestricted and very free, totally sixties. Wadleigh’s team seemed to be in the right place at the right time. Which is quite a feat in itself. However the editing is where it all really comes together, we get lots of split screen and overlapping effects, which really do a lot to bring to life what could have otherwise been a static shot of someone singing a song. The fact that a young Martin Scorsese and his future editor - Thelma Schoonmaker were on the editing team probably didn’t hurt too much.

But of course the visuals are only half the story, music and sound obviously play a huge role too. For every great act in the film there’s another that played the event but didn’t make the final cut for whatever reason. Some omissions were rectified with the extra forty minutes bolted on for the Director’s Cut, hello Janis Joplin and Jefferson Airplane, but even now there’s still no Tim Hardin, The Band, Grateful Dead or Ravi Shankar. But what we do get is a good mixed bag of performances, Joe Cocker gurning like a born again 90s raver through With A Little Help From My Friends, likewise Santana and Ten Years After manage to show that with epic guitar solos comes epic face pulling. We get The Who at their live peak, but unfortunately so far no footage of Townsend booting Abbie Hoffman off stage has ever turned up. Other musical highlights include Sly Stone putting the rest of the line up to shame and showing that he was James Brown’s natural heir, Crosby, Stills & Nash doing their acoustic thing, the electric set that included Neil Young wasn’t filmed thanks to Young nixing the idea. Doh! Then off course there’s Richie Havens kicking the whole shebang off, decked out in a kaftan and dripping sweat all over the place. He’s amazing to watch and even better to listen to.

By the time Hendrix hit the stage a staggering four days after Havens the majority of the 500,000 that had trooped along had departed. Almost no one attending had brought any sort of provisions to survive their time at Woodstock, have a look next time you watch it and see how many tents you can spot. The real victory of Woodstock was the fact that it happened and it passed off relatively peacefully, it was organised by the people for the people too. Half a million American youths were able to sleep next to each other in some strange field in atrocious weather without any violence, that’s a wonderful thing. Especially when juxtaposed with the same amount of Americans 8,500 miles away in Vietnam doing the same thing to the same soundtrack but with very different results.

For me Woodstock is something that I watch every five years or so. It’s not my favourite music festival documentary, but it’s damn close. The previous year’s Monterey Pop Festival is far better music wise, but doesn’t spend much time with the audience. In fact with a few exceptions I really don’t enjoy the music in Woodstock as much as the stuff that happened while all that was going on. The thunderstorm, the stage announcements - ‘If you think really hard, maybe we can stop this rain’, the warnings about the brown acid, the interview with the guy who uses a portaloo and describes it as ‘far out’, the locals who rally round to provide food for the festival goers, the atrocious mess call trumpet player - the list is almost endless. It’s easily one of the high points of popular culture in the 60s. The good vibe of Woodstock didn’t last long though, just a few months after on December 6th The Rolling Stones staged their own mini festival in California at the Altamont Speedway and brought the 60s to a bloody violent close.

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