Published Aug 15, 2019
Michael Wadleigh's Woodstock (1970) is the most compelling record of the seminal music event in the history of rock and roll. Winner of the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature and one of the highest grossing movies of 1970, this monumental film showcases the stranger-than-fiction story of the Woodstock Music and Art Fair. While the festival lives on in collective memory, it is astonishing to plummet back to the precise moment when a dairy farm in Bethel, New York, became the site of career-defining performances from Jimi Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane and the Who — to name a few.
Inconspicuously beginning with footage of a plow preparing the festival grounds, the film allows the viewer to travel through Woodstock with the same astonishment as its organizers, performers, and over 400,000 attendees. The film captures the promised "peace, love, and music" of the festival in spades, with scenes of joyful mudslides, celebratory skinny dipping, and drug-fuelled meditation circles. It also captures the devastation of the festival grounds, the hundreds of abandoned cars along the highway, the helicopters shuttling in performers, and community members donating food and water for desperate, emaciated hippies. There are good reasons why Joni Mitchell called Woodstock "a spark of beauty," while the New York Times called it "a nightmare of mud and stagnation."
What Woodstock does better than anything else, though, is depict jaw-dropping performances. Wadleigh's film shows Joe Cocker at his peak, performing the Beatles' "With A Little Help From My Friends" with frenetic gusto. Santana, who were still relatively unknown in 1969, are seen pouring their hearts out in an infectious rendition of "Soul Sacrifice," with the massive crowd pulsating along. Epitomizing the best of acoustic folk of the time are Crosby, Still and Nash, with their beautiful performance of "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes" in the early hours of the festival's Monday morning.
And of course, there is Jimi Hendrix's bombastic take on "The Star-Spangled Banner." While it is burned in many music lovers' imaginations, seeing the legendary performance happen is overwhelming. The crowd is exhausted, soaked from the rain, famished — and entirely enthralled.
It took the work of seven editors — including academy award winners Thelma Schoonmaker and Martin Scorsese — to somehow condense the weekend that defined a generation into just over three hours for its original theatrical release. This challenge ended up giving the film some of its definitive visual character, including ample use of split screen.
This wildcard of a film — which was working with a budget of a few hundred thousand dollars—involved director Wadleigh rounding up dozens of members of New York's film industry and promising a good wage if the movie succeeded — and nothing if it failed. Much like the festival itself, Woodstock the film was unpredictable from its inception. Luckily, Wadleigh and his crew were in the right place at the best possible time. They just had to put up with a thunderstorm or two.
You can celebrate Woodstock's 50th birthday on the big screen through Exclaim!'s Screenjams series: a celebration of music movies at Cineplex theatres. Head to a Cineplex theatre near you to catch Woodstock on August 16. For full details, visit www.cineplex.com/Events.