by Ron Simon
Most Woodstock documentaries have that mental plague of the sixties, of not remembering well. The original Woodstock (1970) directed by Michael Wadleigh was all about sensory experience — mind blowing split screens and a stream of consciousness narrative that barely reflected the chronology of the actual events. It has taken fifty years but Barak Goodman and his PBS American Experience team have artfully done justice to the real Woodstock, not some mythic fantasy in our collective imagination. Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, gives us the cultural and political perspective to understand what those several days in August 1969 were all about. See the “trippy” trailer of that original 1970’s film, below:
See a trailer of the new Woodstock documentary, below:
Goodman with writer/editor Don Kleszy commence their film by not only reviewing the social turbulence of the late sixties, but also the burgeoning tradition of the music festival. The Woodstock Festival, conceived by entrepreneurs John Roberts and Joel Rosenman along with promoters Michael Lang and Artie Kornfeld, was envisioned as a profit making cultural retreat from rising political tensions of the nation.
When the residents of Wallkill in rural New York legally opposed the original venue for the concert, the quartet scrambled for a new location of this self-proclaimed “Aquarian Exposition.” They found the perfect bucolic setting in Bethel at the now iconic Max Yasgur’s farm.
But having only weeks to construct the facility, the producers had to make hard choices, especially with word of mouth spreading in the underground press. With evocative archival footage, we watch Lang and crew decide to construct the stage and forgo any fences. Woodstock was now free, but costs would come later, especially because of the lack of serious planning toward medical and food issues.
We hear the reflections of many festivals goers about why this communal experience was so monumental. No one could believe that there were so many like-minded compatriots from around the country.
Woodstock was the platonic ideal of the counterculture come to stardust life. But, as you scan footage of the crowds that has remained hidden in the vaults, you are amazed how very white and healthy this crowd really is. Diversity was not a something that was in the air. Goodman also keeps his visuals in the present tense, and we don’t see the visages of the wizened seniors reminiscing about their glory days.
Goodman’s film relies less on the passion of the music than the original documentary, with a few artists representing the folk and rock streams of the festival. But the performances, from Joan Baez to Jimi Hendrix, remain potent. Some of the music was truly revelatory to the audience. We hear testimony that Santana felt like nothing that came before, perhaps opening the audience’s mind to the Hispanic impact that would be coming.
Click the photo below to watch a clip of that revelatory Santana performance:
Goodman sees the sixties era “forged in crisis,” much like today’s generation with different threats, notably climate change and disillusionment with institutions. He wants his version of the Festival to inspire, emphasizing how Woodstock tried to be a “new city.” But his images are open-ended, yielding other interpretations, perhaps more relevant to today.
Beyond the Sunday rain, Woodstock was a total mess, a city without proper medical care or food supplies. We see the Army helicopters coming to Bethel to bring doctors. Ironically, the Army, which most of the audience despised, saved their lives. And the conservative, square residents of Sullivan County donated food from their pantries to nourish the hungry, really hungry, crowd.
It was a far cry from that Garden in Joni Mitchell’s lyrics, and it was the truly varied community beyond the no fences, who came to aid, making the Woodstock miracle of peace happen. It was not just a Generation Defined, but also a Country at Woodstock.
Yes, even in the turmoil and divisiveness of the sixties, the nation had higher ideals than a good rockin’ time. Perhaps, this resonant film for now might inspire our unconnected cells of society to get together sooner or later, as the opening anthem requests.
HelenHighly Adds: The opening anthem that Simon refers to above is “Get Together,” a Chet Powers song, which was sung by Woodstock’s opening performer, Richie Havens — the second song in his opening set. It was popularized by The Youngbloods, and it’s their version that was used in the 1970’s Woodstock film (below).* Btw, the original film, especially the director’s cut, focused on the music of the festival, so if you want to hear the music, Helen Highly Recommends you get the 40th Anniversary Special Edition Director’s Cut of 3 Days of Peace and Music (2009); it includes everything (including interviews). This new film, by Barak Goodman, focuses more on the audience and the politics of the festival, aiming to inspire a new audience about the power of young people when they act on their vision and passion. (News Update: This new film is now available for free online; see more below.)
As the festival’s first performer, Havens held the crowd for nearly three hours. Havens was told to continue playing because many artists scheduled to perform after him were delayed in reaching the festival location, with highways at a virtual standstill. He was called back for several encores. Having run out of tunes, he improvised a song based on the old spiritual “Motherless Child” that became “Freedom,” one of the most famously remembered songs of the festival. Later, Havens explained, “I think the word ‘freedom’ came out of my mouth because I saw it in front of me. I saw the freedom that we were looking for. And every person sharing it, and so that word came out.” He said, “I’d already played every song I knew and I was stalling, asking for more guitar and mic, trying to think of something else to play, and then it just came to me … The establishment was foolish enough to give us all this freedom and we used it in every way we could.”
Click below for the song that Simon wishes will unite our country now — “Get Together,” from the original Woodstock film (1970). Mental plague or not, it captured a great historical moment:
* Why did the original Woodstock movie use the Youngbloods version of “Get Together” and not the Ritchie Havens version from the concert? I don’t know. Maybe for the same reason that the new Woodstock movie includes so much Bob Dylan music, even though he never appeared at Woodstock. To be clear, director Goodman does not suggest that Dylan was at the concert, but he apparently feels that Dylan is connected to the cultural/political zeitgeist that the famous festival represents in history. Both the Youngbloods and Dylan have interesting why-I-almost-did-but-didn’t-make-it-to-Woodstock stories.
News Update 5/20/19 (click): Vulture reports that the 50th Anniversary Live Woodstock Festival Concert Will Go On… Maybe
Note: Director Barak Goodman had another film open at Tribeca 2019, in addition to this Woodstock film — Slay the Dragon, a political advocacy documentary about the dangers of gerrymandering. He says the feels both movies share a similar inspirational quality. Click here to read IndieNYC’s review of Slay the Dragon, including interview with the director.
News Update: Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation is now available online FOR FREE! Click here to watch.
Note: This film is also discussed in HelenHighly’s “Freedom Films” article, along with two other films that deal with freedom of expression and its political impact. Click here to read that article.