#414) Woodstock (1970)
OR “Farm Out”
Directed by Michael Wadleigh
Class of 1996
NOTE: The most readily available version of “Woodstock” is the 1994 Director’s Cut with 45 minutes of additional footage and performances.
The Plot: On a warm August weekend in 1969, the town of Bethel, New York is inundated with over 400,000 young people eager to attend the Woodstock music festival. Traffic jams, uncooperative weather, and protests from the locals do not stop these three days of peace and music. Orchestrated by filmmaker Michael Wadleigh, “Woodstock” the film captures the event from every angle. In addition to the legendary performances by some of rock’s finest musicians, attention is given to the “younger generation” in attendance, the event organizers caught off-guard by the turnout, the local townspeople who do/do not support the event, and hippies. Lots and lots of hippies.
Why It Matters: The NFR gives a rundown of the bigger names on the roster, and singles out the film’s soundtrack as well as its “innovate use of split frame visuals”.
But Does It Really?: There’s no way one movie could capture the essence of the Woodstock experience, but “Woodstock” comes remarkably close. Wadleigh’s cross-section approach to covering the festival, as well as the aforementioned split frame visuals, makes for an immersive, unforgettable movie about a landmark American event. “Woodstock” is the rare documentary that captures the cultural zeitgeist, and is a no-brainer for NFR inclusion.
Everybody Gets One: Underground film director Michael Wadleigh landed the plum job of covering Woodstock thanks to event organizer Arte Kornfeld, who had persuaded Warner Bros. to finance the documentary. Wadleigh could not afford to pay his film crew, and got them all to agree on a double or nothing contract: double pay if the movie was a hit, nothing if it wasn’t.
Seriously, Oscars?: Despite constant fights between Wadleigh and Warner Bros. over the film’s runtime and distribution, “Woodstock” became one of the highest grossing movies of 1970. At the 1971 Oscars, the film received three nominations (still a record for a documentary), and won Best Documentary. “Woodstock” lost its other two nominations – Editing and Sound – to Best Picture winner “Patton”.
- Woodstock came to be when concert promoters Michael Lange and Artie Kornfeld approached business entrepreneurs Joel Rosenman and John P. Roberts about bankrolling a recording studio in Woodstock, New York. Rosenman and Roberts countered with a concert that would promote artists known to perform around Woodstock (such as Bob Dylan), and the four founded Woodstock Ventures. After the towns of Wallkill and Saugerties emphatically denied Woodstock permits to perform there, the company settled on a dairy farm in Bethel, on the condition that attendance not exceed 50,000. Incidentally, the concert is named after the company, not the town, which was never considered as a potential venue.
- Shoutout to the film’s editing team, led by the legendary Thelma Schoonmaker. Their use of split-screen helped to retain as much footage as possible after Warner Bros. demanded Wadleigh cut the film down from his intended six hours to three. Fun Fact: One of the assistant editors on this movie was young up-and-comer Martin Scorsese. And now you know the rest of the story!
- The chronology of the concert is jumbled in the film, but the first day of Woodstock did begin with Richie Havens. The guitarist actually ran out of songs to sing during his set, and improvised “Freedom” on the spot. You are watching a man literally make it up as he goes along.
- For whatever reason, it tickled me that such a massive event still did loudspeaker announcements. Could anyone beyond the first few rows actually hear anything?
- Just a reminder that Joan Baez is in three movies on the NFR. Talk about being in the right place at the right time. Joan was six months pregnant with her son Gabriel during Woodstock, and gives a shoutout to her husband David Harris, who was in Federal Prison for draft evasion.
- The Who’s set consists mostly of music from their album “Tommy” (now a major motion picture). We get a bit of the finale, performed at sunrise, hence the cool “lighting effect” near the end.
- I assume Sha-Na-Na were the first to capitalize on the ‘50s nostalgia wave that would permeate the 1970s. Can I blame them for “Joannie Loves Chachi”?
- Joe Cocker’s unhinged performance of “With a Little Help From My Friends” is A-maz-ing. Also, Joe Cocker is British? Lost that bet.
- What separates “Woodstock” from other “concert movies” is the emphasis on audience as well as performers. We witness the audience as they listen to the music, take shelter from the rain, call friends and family on the available pay phones, skinny dip in the nearby pond, and a variety of other activities. It helps with the overall feeling of actually being at Woodstock.
- “Woodstock” features an early performance by Crosby, Stills, Nash and…not Young. Neil Young refused to be filmed for the movie, rejoining the group after their acoustic first set.
- Fact: Jefferson Airplane (later Jefferson Starship) is the only group to perform at both Woodstock and “The Star Wars Holiday Special”. Light the sky on fire, kids!
- I was surprised when this movie showed me that not only did many Bethel residents on the other side of the generation gap support those attending the concert, but also supplied food and clothing throughout the weekend. Further proof that it’s hard to hate up close.
- Singer-songwriter John Sebastian happened to be attending Woodstock when he was called up on stage to perform (several acts had not arrived at that point). He’s clearly out of it, but in a sweet (and possibly drug induced) way. I’m just glad he remembered his guitar.
- Of all the songs in this movie, the one that got stuck in my head was Country Joe McDonald’s “FISH Cheer/Feel-Like-I’m-Fixing-To-Die-Rag”. It may be the catchiest anti-Vietnam song ever.
- Wow, Santana’s performance is so good the screen goes black for a second. THAT’S a showstopper.
- Sly and the Family Stone know how to put on a show. Even I was flashing the peace sign during “I Want to Take You Higher”.
- The exclusion of Janis Joplin from the theatrical cut is an unfortunate bit of shortsightedness; Joplin died only six months after the film’s release.
- Property owner Max Yasgur gives a brief, endearing speech to the crowd about the success of Woodstock. Side note: I 100% support casting Eugene Levy as Yasgar in 2009’s “Taking Woodstock”.
- Like the real Woodstock, the film closes with Jimi Hendrix’s iconic performance. Hendrix’s guitar skills are justifiably legendary, but that solo goes on way too long. They even intercut his set with footage of people packing up and leaving. Wrap it up, Hendrix!
- The final helicopter shot is the only full overview we get of Woodstock, and man is it a sight to behold.
- The original Woodstock festival has, of course, become the quintessential music festival of the 20th century. The founders of Woodstock have attempted reunion anniversary concerts over the years, with the results ranging from forgotten (Woodstock ‘89), to violence/cries of corporate sellouts (Woodstock ‘99), or cancelled (the planned Woodstock 50 of 2019).
- I am not going to list what happened to every performer/group from “Woodstock”. Suffice it to say that everyone is either tragically dead or miraculously still alive.
- Despite the film’s success, Michael Wadleigh would not direct another film until 1981’s “Wolfen” starring Albert Finney. Since then, Wadleigh’s only other film ventures have been related to “Woodstock”.
Listen to This: Many of the artists featured in the film are also in the National Recording Registry: Joan Baez (for her self-titled album), The Who (“My Generation”), Arlo Guthrie (“Alice’s Restaurant”), Jimi Hendrix (“Are You Experienced?”), Sly and the Family Stone (“Stand!”), and Santana (“Abraxas”). Shockingly, the NRR has not inducted Janis Joplin, CSN&Y, or Jefferson Airplane. Why not save time and induct the complete Woodstock recordings? Pretty historically significant if you ask me.