By John H. Foote
21. WOODSTOCK (1970)
Discussing Woodstock today, it is like discussing a state of mind rather than a rock concert dedicated to peace, love and freedom.
Fifty years ago on a farm in upstate New York, a few hours from the hustle and bustle of New York City, the most important cultural even of the century took place in an open field on a huge sprawling farm owned by Max Yasgur, a dairy farmer in the community Bethel, near Woodstock.
It is the smiles you will not forget. Not those of the musicians, but those of the young audience in attendance, smiling when they arrive, smiling trying to find a place to lay a blanket or pitch a tent, smiling meeting others from across America, and smiling when the music starts. And they never stopped smiling even when the rain started, when the mud made moving difficult, they were smiling exiting the concert when the last band had played. I will bet money those who were there are still smiling today when they remember what it was to have been there. Long hair, wild clothing, sandals, T shirts, torn jeans, peace signs everywhere, peace signs flashed by even the nuns in attendance, it must have been an astounding experience.
“Time it was, oh what a time it was, it was a time of…. innocence…” – Simon and Garfunkel, “Bookends”
Seeking a place to hold a rock concert to celebrate peace, a group of promoters descended on the community and cut a deal with the locals to hold their concert on Yasgur’s sprawling farm, with rolling open fields, a pond surrounded in the beauty of nature and the perfect landscape for a stage and surrounding crowd. Initially they expected perhaps ten thousand people, but by the time the concert was at its peak more than a half million kids had come to the farm to listen to some of the top bands of the time.
It was said later that incredibly there were no major incidents of criminal activity during the concert, just peace, joy and music among the young people who descended upon Woodstock. Abbie Hoffman famously stated, “I live in the Woodstock nation”. How many others believed him? Stated the same thing?
During the three-day event, rain did not stop the acts on the stage, mud did not prevent the audience from having a great time. Young people from across the United States, couples, young families with children, black, white, Oriental, all creeds and colours listened to the music of the time, listened to the artists discuss the war in Viet Nam and the thousands of young men who had died there, and would continue to die if the war did not stop. Traffic into the small town was gridlocked for miles, so much so that many pulled over their vehicles and waked to the concert. Musicians were choppered in and out when it became clear there was no other way, many of them arriving and leaving almost at once.
Using sixteen 16 mm cameras, director Michael Wadleigh captured the event on film in a way an event like this had never been shot. The only comparison I can make truthfully is Leni Riefenstahl’s groundbreaking documentary about Hitler and Nazism Triumph of the Will (1935) an extraordinary piece of propaganda. The difference of course is that there was no propaganda in Woodstock, they cameras captured the truth. Nothing but the truth as it happened.
Wadleigh ordered his camera man to shoot footage, as much as they could, to capture the acts on stage, behind the scenes, and into the crowd. If there is a finer documentary that captures the spirit of the sixties, the mood of the time, I have not seen it. Shooting one hundred and twenty miles of film, it was edited down to a three-hour film by Thelma Schoonmaker, assisted by no less than Martin Scorsese, both who would go to a long fruitful career collaborating together on Scorsese’s films. Schoonmaker has won Academy Awards for editing Raging Bull (1980), The Aviator (2004) and Hugo (2011) and been nominated for several others. Since Raging Bull, she has cut every one of Scorsese’s films, but I am not sure ever did a greater job bringing a film into a cohesive narrative than she did with Woodstock. Using split screens, using long holds on the action, focusing on the audience, she allowed audiences who had not attended Woodstock to somehow be there. We feel the crowd, the rain, the mud, we hear the rock music blasting from the speakers across the countryside, we bear witness to the townsfolk feed the kids, find them washrooms, places to bathe and use the washroom. It was the coming together of a community created by concert promoters for three days of music and peace. It remains the single most extraordinary cultural event of the last one hundred and fifty years.
We watch Richie Havens, Sha Na Na, Janis Joplin, and the great Jimi Hendrix onstage playing their hearts out for this massive audience fighting off the rain, the cold, the chills, to hear the bands. Nothing else mattered, and somehow a community was forged. Joan Baez sings alone on the stage, leaving the audience haunted her rendition of the ballad “Joe Hill” and Joe Cocker rocks out the song “With a Little Help from My Friends”. The capturing of the musical acts was an act of astonishment, but it is the little moments within the massive audience that is where humanity shines. Poor doomed Hendrix and Joplin would not live another year, yet here they were in their element, a part of rock and roll history, not to live to see it. How extraordinary film preserves the memory forever.
Those who were there have never forgotten it, a bond forged by all who attended. So many smiles, so much laughter as the hippies ruled the day, showing they were certainly not drugged out long hairs, they were more often than not peace loving, intelligent kids, some with children already. They bathe together in a pond, nude, they bathe their babies and children, they break bread together, sharing what they have. Greed, anything other than generosity does not seem to exist here. There was no room for anything but peace. My God, the lives of the hundreds of thousands of audience members must have struggled going back to their lives afterwards, it must have been downhill from that moment on.
The film won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature and was nominated for Best Film Editing, which it also deserved to win. Woodstock remains the most important documentary in American Film history, a soaring work of art that captured life, oh beautiful life as it was transpiring. And my God, those smiles.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.