Skip to content

The Woodstock Movie

I wrote this for my history/film course in 2000 and I got an A-; my marker said it was good, except that I relied too heavily on Ebert. I haven’t included sources because I don’t want anyone stealing the whole essay.

woodstock-movieThe documentary Woodstock, released in 1970, portrays the music and arts festival of the same name which took place in upper New York State over four days during August 1969. The 1960s had been a tumultuous time for the United States. Significant events of the decade included the Civil Rights Movement, the assassination of President Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis. Less than a month before Woodstock Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. Opposition to the Vietnam War had polarised much of the population, and was a large factor in the development of a counterculture, where young people rejected the way of life of their parents, and instead developed an alternative viewpoint where the values of their parents, such as the importance of attaining a respectable job and 2.4 children were not prioritised. Some of the impetus for the counterculture came from new societal developments such as the increasing availability of recreational drugs and contraception, and the growth of new types of music that were in touch with this change and often had lyrics inspired by the use of recreational drugs (“Semolina pilchard climbing up the Eiffel tower.2”).

Inherent in the counterculture was a desire to return to a simpler way of life, less dependent on technology and more in touch with nature. The Woodstock Music and Arts Festival is often viewed as the culmination of the changes of the 1960s, a temporary return to Eden for three days. Woodstock was originally carefully planned with the intention to raise money for a new recording studio, with many of the famous musicians of the era paid to perform. When twice the number of people than was intended arrived at the festival, the small town of Bethel was stretched beyond capacity, and a disaster area was declared. The organisers were unable to control entry to the festival, and it made a substantial loss, but also gained symbolic status; as the event grew out of control, a spirit of peace and love was maintained.

Woodstock was intended to help recoup the losses made by the festival, and original cinema audiences paid twice the ticket price of a usual first run film. (Although Woodstock is twice the length of a usual film.) Originally the movie came from more pure objectives: director Michael Wadleigh and producer Bob Maurice decided at the last minute that Woodstock would be a significant moment. A production team was rapidly hired on the basis that if the film was released they would receive double payment, while if the project did not go ahead they would receive nothing. The team came away from the festival with 120 miles of footage, which was edited into a three hour film by a team including chief editor Martin Scorcese. Given the circumstances, the precise organisation involved in the filming is impressive: the film crews do not appear in the movie at all.3

The film was part of several major trends in film-making at the time. It was part of a group of documentaries in the late 1960s and early 1970s that were commercially successful. Other documentaries of the same era include Blue Water, White Death and Salesman, as well as several documentaries focused on rock music, such as Monterey Pop, Don’t Look Back and Gimme Shelter. At the same time movies were changing to convey different messages: since the 1920s, movies had generally carried simple, conventional and moral messages. By the late 1960s, movies such as The Graduate, Easy Rider and Woodstock were reflecting the values of the new counterculture, with explorations of violence, sex, and political and social issues.4

Because Woodstock was released shortly after the festival, there is no opportunity for Wadleigh to put the event into perspective. Many of those present at Woodstock genuinely believed that they were present at the most important event in American history, which would herald in a new spirit of fraternity:
“Defense Attorney: “Where do you live?”
Abbie Hoffman [sixties revolutionist]: “I live in Woodstock nation.”
Defense Attorney: “Will you tell the court and jury where it is?”
Abbie Hoffman: “Yes, it is a nation of alienated young people. We carry it around with us as a state of mind, in the same way the Sioux Indians carry the Sioux nation with them….”5
While most of the people interviewed in Woodstock are not so forthright, it is clear that there is one unanimous perspective: that the young people can envisage a new, more humane society, and the festival is a microcosm of that society. For example, a group of swimmers are shown naked, and not self-conscious: “Man, a year ago I never would have believed this was the way to swim. But, man, this is the way to swim,” a young man comments.6

Wadleigh had previously displayed his ideological viewpoint in his 1968 film No Vietnamese Ever Called Me Nigger but the format of Woodstock does not allow for blatant propaganda. Woodstock does not have a narrative, but is constructed solely from footage from the festival. (Roger Ebert: “It gives us maybe sixty percent music and forty percent on the people who were there, and that is a good ratio I think.7”) This format may seem as though it does not allow Wadleigh any opportunity to state his own ideological view, but the unanimous nature of the festival itself means that Wadleigh’s viewpoint is conveyed: he shares, or at least admires, ideals of utopianism and pacifism with those at the festival. The festival was such a successful showcase for the counterculture that this is not surprising, although one critical view states that this was because the festival was so drug saturated: “it is hard to riot when you can’t determine whether you’re staring down at your own wiggling toes or a nest of vipers.8” Ebert writes that Woodstock was, in effect, a peace rally: “without the war to polarise American society, these 400 000 people might not have felt so much in common.9” Wadleigh may have felt that it was not commercially prudent to criticise Vietnam directly, and protest in the form of a music documentary would be much more effective.10

The absence of a narrative does mean that the film is more objective than it otherwise could have been (“in Woodstock he [Wadleigh] is a reporter, not a commentator11”), but Wadleigh’s ideological view is clear: he supports “the kids.” At several points in the movie the film crew are offered marijuana, and at one point they accept. Interviews are conducted with the townspeople, some of whom support the festival (“Kids are hungry, you gotta feed ’em,” or “It’s a big shot to Solomon county business-wise.”) and some who justifiably do not. (“We lost all our milk….Our fields are cut up.”) The interviews, however, are not conducted with neutrality. The farmer who is justifiably angry that festival participants are trespassing on his fields is shown in extreme close up so that he looks unpleasant. Barsam states that “they [the townspeople] are generally so predictable in their responses that they have little or no effect on the main idea behind the film.12” On the other hand it should be noted that the interviewers also mock some of the younger participants at the festival. When one young man, apparently with a female companion, expresses excitement at the carnal possibilities at the festival, he is asked “Isn’t that like taking your own coals to Newcastle?” Sympathy and respect is shown towards the man who cleans the portable toilets (“Port-a-Sans”), who speaks about how one of his sons is at Woodstock, while the other is flying helicopters in Vietnam.

The makers of Woodstock are also able to convey their ideology through the songs that they choose to incorporate into the film. This is supported by Michael Lang, the organiser of Woodstock, when he states near the beginning of the film “music has always been a major form of communication. Now the type of music and the lyric is a little bit more involved in society than it was.” The scene for the festival is set by Canned Heat’s Going’ Up The Country. The music is upbeat and contains lyrics such as “where the water tastes like wine.13” At the same time crowds of people arrive happily: lots of children are shown, and a group of nuns give the peace sign. As the song ends, the crowd dance, silhouetted against the dusk. A feeling of innocence is evoked, to show the purity of the festival and those involved.

Many of the songs are in response to Vietnam. Crosby, Stills and Nash’s Wooden Ships contains a contrived dialogue between two soldiers of opposing sides who are reconciled : “I can see by your coat, my friend, you’re from the other side14” Later, during the line “horror grips us as we watch you die,15” the camera pans from a prison to a picture of Jesus attached to a lamp post, a symbol of the martyrs in Vietnam. A more ironic view of Vietnam is expressed by Country Joe in his song “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-To-Die-Rag.” The makers of the film obviously felt that the song was important, as it is the only time that sub-titles are used, to highlight the already blatant lyrics:
“Come on all you big strong men
Uncle Sam needs your help again
He’s got himself in a terrible jam
Way down yonder in Vietnam
Put down your books, and pick up a gun
We’re gonna have a whole lotta fun

And it’s one, two, three, what are we fighting for
Don’t ask me I don’t give a damn, next stop is Vietnam
And it’s five, six, seven, open up the pearly gates
Ain’t no time to wonder why, whoopee we’re all gonna die…….

Come on mothers throughout the land
Pack your boys off to Vietnam
Come on fathers don’t hesitate
Send your sons off before it’s too late
And you can be the first ones on your block
To have your boy come home in a box.16”
One former GI noted “It gave me the ultimate vent to all those feelings of idiocy and lunacy about the whole war.17” The movie shows the crowd singing along in solidarity. Similarly as Richie Haven’s anti-war set gains momentum the whole audience slowly rise to their feet and clap along.

The penultimate song of Woodstock is Jimi Hendrix’s version of the Star Spangled Banner. Due to rain delays, Hendrix performed his set the morning after Woodstock was scheduled to finish, so that only a small crowd remained to witness his performance. At the time his performance was attacked as a desecration of the national anthem, although it is hard to detect anything but concentration and perhaps reverence in his face. One writer comments that “Jimi Hendrix’s screeching electric version of the “Star Spangled Banner”….constituted a radicalsubversion of an ‘Amerikan’ symbol, and numerous rock bands supported the demonstrations and radical dissent of the young by singing their approval in songs reflective of antiwar attitudes and violent action.18” Ebert, however, looking back at Woodstock twenty-five years later states that he considers Hendrix’s version “the most stirring version of the song I have ever heard. Hendrix tortured his electric guitar to create the sounds of bombs bursting in air, as they were at that moment in Vietnam.” As Hendrix concludes his set, the camera shows the last people sorting through the muddy remains of Woodstock as they leave the site: one couple tries on a pair of shoes. Then, as Hendrix leaves the stage, the editors insert a pan shot of Woodstock taken from a helicopter. The time flow is reversed so that the field fills with people again, possibly the largest crowd ever assembled. The crowd noise builds up, then suddenly stops as the shot ends. The shot is replaced by green fields, and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s Woodstock is played on soundtrack, a celebration of the festival. The song reinforces the central themes of Woodstock: pacifism (“and I dreamed I saw the bombers flying shotgun in the sky, turning into butterflies above our nation19”) and utopianism (“We are stardust…we are golden, caught in the devil’s bargain, and we got to get ourselves back to the Garden.20”)

The makers of Woodstock employed editing techniques that had only recently been developed. Most significant was the flat bed editing table which allowed up to six separate visual and sound tracks to be edited together. Woodstock is almost the only documentary released that uses the technique of multiple images on 70mm film. This made it easier for the editors to compress 120 miles of film into three hours, but also enabled them to give a more intimate representation of the atmosphere at Woodstock. For example, during Santana’s set, three different shots are shown in montage. The middle, largest shot, shows Santana playing a guitar solo. The two identical shots on either side show a bespectacled girl respond to Santana’s playing. At the beginning of his solo her face has a woebegone expression, but as the music intensifies she breaks into a smile and her facial expressions mimic what Santana is playing. Later the camera returns to show the girl dance exuberantly. Images are often juxtaposed for effect: the crowd pass around joints of marijuana and a bottle of wine, while a policeman sucks an iceblock.21

Editing is also used to accentuate certain moods in Woodstock. When Joan Baez plays her simple heartfelt music alone with an acoustic guitar only single shots are used, with low key lighting. A lot of the time the shots are close up, and expose her as vulnerable and nervous. In comparison, her set is followed in the movie directly by hard rock band The Who. Their music is much more vigorous than Baez, and this is reflected in the editing techniques that are used. Montages of shots are used to show different members of the band at the same time, and the composition of the montages vary quickly between one, two or three different shots on screen at once. Mirror shots are also used to increase the impact of the performance. As Ebert states: “the thing about this movie, somehow, is that the people who made it were right there, right on top of what the performers were doing.22” It is also noticeable that the performers are not acting for the cameras, but play reasonably spontaneously and not altogether professionally. Havens stops to tune his guitar on film, while Baez spontaneously begins to sing Swing Low, Sweet Chariot during her performance. Even though the musicians were paid large amounts of money it seems that they feel that they are part of Woodstock Nation.23

Although Woodstock is divided into three days and a fourth morning like the festival itself, the order in which the events and acts appear in is quite different from the actual schedule. While Richie Havens was the first performer and Hendrix was the last as shown in the movie, the remaining acts and events are shown in a significantly different order. Instead of chronologically the bands are organised according to theme: the songs concerning drugs are placed together, the folk-singers are placed together, and the black performers are together at the end. The editing is done in order to provide a more logical progression to the movie and to give a sense of the scope of the festival, rather than to provide a strict chronological account. It is also interesting which musicians are selected to appear in the movie: prominent artists of the era such as the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin and the Jefferson Airplane are omitted from the unedited version. This was due in part, however, to difficulties with record companies, and what remains gives a reasonable cross-section of who played at the festival.

By genre, Woodstock is an event film, where the structure is dictated by the event which is being filmed. An interesting comparison can be made between Woodstock and Gimme Shelter, a film that was also released in 1970. Gimme Shelter documents the Rolling Stones’ 1969 tour of America which culminated in the Altamont tragedy. The group decided to hold a free concert on December 6 as a publicity exercise. Twenty four hours before the concert was due to take place the group was forced to change venues to the Altamont speedway. The site was under provisioned, and the Hells Angels had been hired to take care of security in exchange for $500 of beer. The concert ended in tragedy when a young black man was beaten to death by the Hells Angels. As a result Gimme Shelter serves as a natural counterpoint to Woodstock: “Woodstock is a film about love, music and fun: Gimme Shelter records hate, music and horror.24” At the time of Woodstock it seemed that the peaceful spirit that had pervaded the festival might spread across the country. Altamont ended that hope.25

The counterculture faded after 1970. As the Vietnam War wound down there was less of a division between the old and the young, and less reason to protest. Furthermore, “economic recession signalled that affluence could no longer be assumed and induced a certain caution among the young.26” Altamont had also served to sour the dreams of the counterculture, as had the deaths of prominent members Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison. Woodstock, therefore, serves as a unique capsule of a mind-set that, thirty years later, is difficult to comprehend. Wadleigh’s ideological viewpoint on the festival does not seriously affect the movie: his viewpoint is aligned with those who were present, and the spirit of Woodstock is captured. The film is meant as a celebration of the festival, and as that it certainly succeeds. Actually, as one reporter comments, many of those who were at Woodstock would actually see the performers properly for the first time at the movies. The movie is a fascinating and accurate account of Woodstock, with amazing technical accomplishments in video, audio and editing. As Ebert states, “what other generation has so completely captured its youth on film, for better and worse, than the Woodstock nation?27″28

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Lord Eels Music

S'baht music

timeweleftthisworldtoday

This world's so mixed up everywhere you go

The Immortal Jukebox

A Blog about Music and Popular Culture

Iconic Rock Talk Show

Music, music media, and that crazy Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

Pop Culture Thoughts

Short reviews of pop culture stuff from a lifelong over-indulger.

Blunderstorms

Integrating the platforms of the needs of the synergies of the client experience vertical horizontal paradigm

The All Scene Eye

Music and Media

%d bloggers like this: