Lone Wolf Sullivan is a writer, songwriter, and studio musician.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Woodstock (1970) * * *

WOODSTOCK is a documentary on the Woodstock Music & Art Festival held in Bethel, New York from August 15 - August 18, 1969. It was located on Max Yasgur's 600 acre dairy farm and gives an intimate look at the festival from preparation through cleanup, with historic access to insiders, concert footage, and portraits of the concertgoers. Negative and positive aspects are shown, from drug use by performers to naked fans sliding in the mud, from the collapse of the fences by the unexpected hordes, to the arrival of National Guard helicopters with food and medical assistance for the impromptu city of almost 500,000. It is widely considered the most famous rock festival ever held. For many, it exemplified the counterculture of the 1960s and the "hippie era". Many of the best-known musicians of the times appeared during the rainy weekend. So many people turned up that the festival had to be declared free.

Max Yasgur to crowd: This is the largest group of people ever assembled in one place, and I think you people have proven something to the world: that a half a million kids can get together and have three days of fun and music and have nothing but fun and music, and I God bless you for it!

The festival is named "Woodstock" because it was originally scheduled to take place in the town of Woodstock, in Ulster County. However, the town offered no appropriate site to host such a large event due to their belief that over a million people would attend. A site was found in the town of Wallkill. When local opposition arose, the event was almost canceled, but Sam Yasgur persuaded his father Max to allow the concert to be held on the family's alfalfa field, located in Sullivan County, about 40 miles southwest of Woodstock. Although the show had been planned for a maximum of 200,000 attendees, over 400,000 eventually attended, most of whom did not pay admission. The highways leading to the concert were jammed with traffic. People abandoned their cars and walked for miles to the concert area. Performers came and went via helicopter because it was the only way in or out. The weekend was rainy, facilities were overcrowded, and attendees shared food, alcoholic beverages, and drugs. Local residents of this modest tourist-oriented area gave blankets and food to some concertgoers.

Hugh Romney: Good morning! What we have in mind is breakfast in bed for four hundred thousand. We must be in heaven, man! There's always a little bit of heaven in a disaster area.

Woodstock's promoters were Michael Lang, Artie Kornfeld, John Roberts and Joel Rosenman. Lang was a hippie who had owned a head shop and hoped to build a recording studio in the Woodstock area to serve artists such as Bob Dylan and Janis Joplin, who had homes nearby. When Lang and Kornfeld presented the idea to Rosenman and Roberts, Rosenman hatched the idea of a rock concert. After toying with an Age of Aquarius theme, they settled on the slogan "Three Days of Peace and Music", partly as a way to placate suspicious local officials and partly to appeal to anti-war sentiment. They hired commercial artist Arnold Skolnick to design the artwork, which incorporated a catbird design.

This documentary covers the 3 day music festival that symbolized the late 1960s in terms of musical, social and political ideology of the era. American audiences are introduced to Ten Years After, featuring guitarist Alvin Lee. Jimi Hendix, The Who and Joe Cocker give riveting performances. As naked flower children romp, the New York freeway is closed because of traffic congestion. Music lovers leave their cars and travel on foot to experience torrential downpours of rain, food shortages and non-stop music. Jefferson Airplane gives the wake up call with their song "Volunteers Of America". Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young give an uneven live performance, their second ever. John Sebastian gives an impromptu set with a borrowed guitar from Tim Hardin. Santana, Sly and The Family Stone, Sha-Na-Na, Arlo Guthrie, Richie Havens and Joan Baez also appear. The Grateful Dead, The Everly Brothers, Credence Clearwater Revival and Janis Joplin performed but were not shown in the original film. The Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia recalled that it was the worse live show the band ever did, ironic for a band known for their spirited live performances. Because of problems with the sound, John Fogerty didn’t want Creedence Clearwater Revival’s performance included.

David Crosby: This is our second gig.
Stephen Stills: This is the second time we've ever played in front of people, man, we're scared shitless.

WOODSTOCK set the standard for all rockumentaries to come. Sensing that the now-legendary 1969 Woodstock concert would be something more than a mere "happening", director Michael Wadleigh brought along a battalion of cinematographers and assistants. He arrived with sixteen camera operators from Warner Bros. and thousands of reels of film. They reportedly shot 120 miles of footage, which was edited primarily by Thelma Schoonmaker, who would go on to cut most of Martin Scorsese’s movies--with help from Scorsese as an apprentice editor. Utilizing widescreen, splitscreen, and stereo-sound technology to the utmost, Wadleigh puts us right in the middle of the 400,000 screaming, mud-caked spectators, then zooms in to loving closeups of the stars.

As a result, what could have been an aloof, detached record of the landmark concert is as "up close and personal" as it was possible to get without actually being there. The finished product won the 1970 Oscar for Best Documentary--and was also stamped with an "R" rating due to some innocuous nudity and profanity. The original 184 minute running time was expanded to 224 minutes for the 1994 video version, featuring previously excised footage of Janis Joplin and Jefferson Airplane. Canned Heat’s "Going Up The Country" was heard in the 1970 version, but the band actually performs in the extended cut as well. One of the best shots in Woodstock has no music at all: the final image, as a group of dour policemen survey the garbage and debris left behind by the Woodstock Nation.

Richie Havens starts the show off fiercely on acoustic guitar with "Handsome Johnny", followed by an improvised "Freedom". Canned Heat does a rocking blues version of "A Change Is Gonna Come". The Who are shot in dazzling slow motion dissolves and split screens performing "See Me/Feel Me" and "Summertime Blues", though we don’t get to see Pete Townsend kick Abbie Hoffman off the stage. Country Joe McDonald sums up the anti-war message with his "Fixing to Die Rag" ("Give me an 'F'!"). Carlos Santana noodles, Janis Joplin screeches, but the highlight is probably Sly and the Family Stone blasting out "I Want To Take You Higher". Another showstopper is Ten Years After's rendition of "I'm Going Home".

Country Joe McDonald leads the crowd through "I Feel Like I’m Fixin To Die Rag". Lyrics appear on the bottom of the screen with bouncing ball for those like me who have not committed the anti-war anthem to memory. Joan Baez and Sha Na Na perform. In addition to Jefferson Airplane ("Saturday Afternoon", "Uncle Sam’s Blues") and Janis Joplin ("Work Me, Lord"), Jimi Hendrix had a big impact with his version of "The Star Spangled Banner". It was controversial, as the Vietnam War was underway and the sound effects that Hendrix generated with his guitar paralleled the sounds of the violence of the conflict. His performances is considered one of the greatest in rock history, though Hendrix regarded it as sub-par.

Jimi Hendrix: I see that we meet again, hmmm...

A warning goes out concerning bad brown acid, Joan Baez tells the crowd about her imprisoned husband, the weather gets worse and some are blaming it on government helicopters seeding the clouds, and the mud rises. Festival goers begin to starve because there's not enough food to go around, there are drug overdoses and not enough doctors are there to help, and all the while the Vietnam war colors the mood. However, the audience are determined to enjoy themselves despite the hardships, because there is the music to listen to. Arlo Guthrie is surprisingly good doing "Coming Into Los Angeles" and marveling that traffic has shut down the New York Thruway.

Arlo Guthrie: It's incredible. I heard the New York Thruway's closed.
News Reporter: Closed? This morning we heard that they were backed down Route 17 with an eight hour delay.
Arlo Guthrie: Right. Well, the New York Thruway's closed. Isn't that far out?

WOODSTOCK is probably sixty percent concert, forty percent concert-goers. An interesting scene is a camera crew filming the toilet facilities and telling a dude that they’re making a movie. "What’s it called?" Response: "Port-O-San." The townspeople, including the chief of police, weigh in and almost unanimously support the kids, remarking how well they’ve behaved. One of those kids, interviewed on the side of the road and who may have never even made it to the show, sums it up best: "People who are nowhere are coming here because there’s people they think are somewhere. Everybody is looking for some kind of answer. When there isn’t one."

There was some crime and other misbehavior at Woodstock, as well as a fatality from a drug overdose, an accidental death caused by an occupied sleeping bag being run over by a tractor, and one participant died from falling off a scaffold. There were also 3 miscarriages and 2 births recorded at the festival as well, and logistical headaches. Furthermore, because Woodstock was not intended for such a large crowd, there were not enough facilities such as toilets and first-aid tents. There was profiteering in the sale of "electric Kool-Aid" laced with random hallucinogens, which made many people ill. Drugs were commonly used and available at Woodstock. LSD and marijuana use were prominent throughout the festival.

The movie did big box office business and a successful three record set sold millions of copies. Two albums of the concert have been released. The first was officially titled "Woodstock: Music From the Original Soundtrack and More". It sold millions of copies and was based on the documentary film. Due to that album's success, a second album, "Woodstock 2", was released about a year later. The festival did not initially make money for the promoters, although record sales and proceeds from the film made it very profitable.

In 1994 a director's cut of WOODSTOCK, subtitled "3 Days of Peace & Music", was released that added over 40 minutes to the film and included performances by Canned Heat, Jefferson Airplane and Janis Joplin that were omitted from the original release. Jimi Hendrix's set at the end of the film was also extended with two additional numbers. Some of the crowd scenes in the original film were replaced by previously unseen footage. There is bonus footage of performers, and a post-credits tribute to activists, performers, and organizers who passed on since the original release. The list of prominent people from the "Woodstock Generation" who had died includes John F. Kennedy, Malcolm X, Che Guevara, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mama Cass Elliot, Jim Morrison, John Lennon, Max Yasgur, Abbie Hoffman, Paul Butterfield, Keith Moon, Bob Hite, Richard Manuel, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix.


Friday, August 15

The first day officially began at 5:07 p.m. with Richie Havens and featured folk artists.

* Richie Havens
* Swami Satchidananda: invocation for the festival
* Sweetwater
* The Incredible String Band
* Bert Sommer
* Tim Hardin
* Ravi Shankar
* Melanie
* Arlo Guthrie
* Joan Baez

Saturday, August 16

The day opened at 12:15 pm, and featured some of the event's biggest psychedelic and guitar rock headliners.

* Quill
* Keef Hartley Band
* Country Joe McDonald
* John Sebastian
* Santana
* Canned Heat
* Mountain
* Janis Joplin and The Kozmic Blues Band
* Grateful Dead
* Creedence Clearwater Revival
* Sly & the Family Stone
* The Who
* Jefferson Airplane

Sunday, August 17 to Monday, August 18

Joe Cocker was the first act on the last officially booked day (Sunday). He opened up the day's events at 2 PM. His set was preceded by at least two instrumentals by The Grease Band.

* Joe Cocker
* After Joe Cocker's set, a thunderstorm disrupted the events for several hours.
* Country Joe and the Fish
* Ten Years After
* The Band
* Blood, Sweat & Tears
* Johnny Winter
* Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young
* Paul Butterfield Blues Band
* Jimi Hendrix

New DVD and Blu-ray versions of WOODSTOCK: THE DIRECTOR'S CUT are scheduled for release by Warner Home Video on June 9, 2009. The "Ultimate Collector’s Edition" reportedly includes an hour of performances not seen in the film, or not seen in full. Director Michael Wadleigh is overseeing the release, Warner said. Robert Klein's documentary "The '60s and the Woodstock Generation" will be among the extra features. WOODSTOCK is being restored and remastered for the release. The previous DVD edition was released in 1997, with reviewers on Amazon complaining of its VHS-like quality. WOODSTOCK is a priceless document. In 1996, Woodstock was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".

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