Woodstock exists in cultural memory as the quintessential music festival – the festival that brought together the greatest musical acts of the late 1960s with the counter-cultural generation. Every musical festival since aspires to be Woodstock-like (though sadly, most achieve the comparison only by being doused in rain and becoming mudpits as Woodstock famously did). As a current music-lover and festival-goer who is admittedly under-informed about a lot of the history of rock music and its place in culture at that time, I feel very grateful to Michael Wadleigh and others for preserving the event so well on film.
He begins with the festival set-up, interviewing the organizers as they supervise stages being built and fences being set up. The fences would quickly prove useless, as the crowd of young people entering the grounds from all directions more than doubled expectations; rather than hold off a quarter-million non-ticket-holders, the organizers decided to make the festival free and let everyone in. A pretty incredible situation compared to today’s tightly-secured festival grounds.
It’s this feeling of freedom and openness that marks the film, and what you really take away from it. Wadleigh captures plenty of amazing music from The Who, Joan Baez, Joe Cocker, Ten Years After, Crosby Stills Nash & Young, Jefferson Airplane, The Band, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and many others, as well as interviews with locals and festival-goers giving multiple viewpoints on the effects of the festival. That’s bolstered throughout the film also with well-done split-screen photography, either showing both the band on stage and the audience watching, or showing some aspect of the experience with someone else commenting on it.
But what really stuck with me and what I continue to remember, are the in-between moments. People making the most of the aftermath of the torrential downpour by sliding down the resulting mudslide over and over. Couples taking a few minutes alone by a nearby river. Babies and children dancing around with abandon. Tired attendees grabbing a nap wherever they could find room. The film is remarkably well-paced, especially for its length, cutting between these sorts of quiet scenes and the rock music happening on stage (and the manic performances and dancing accompanying the high-profile evening sets).
Is it balanced? No, not really – though Wadleigh puts in a few negative sound bytes from farmers upset about the destruction of their fields and residents concerned about the rampant pot use, this is very much a positive affirmation of the late ’60s generation attending the festival. It’s a celebration of the strand of counter-cultural thought that prefers to express disagreement through art rather than political action (or which sees art AS political action).
As one concert-goer put it: “I just, I’m a human being and that’s all I wanna be. I don’t want a mass change because a mass change only brings around mass insanity. I just wanna be myself and find a place where I can, you know, maintain some kind of balance inside myself.” Interestingly, he also stated: “People come here looking for an answer, when there isn’t one. […] I don’t really think music is that important. […] But people are just lost, I think” – suggesting a more wistful undertone to the proceedings, one which acknowledges the yearning to have something to hold on to after you’ve rejected or moved past the answers offered by previous generations. By and large, though, it’s shown just as billed – “three days of peace and music.” There’s an idyllic quality to the portrayal of Woodstock here that I’m not sure I entirely believe, but boy, I would like to.