Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The New York Thruway's Closed, Man!

Film: Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace and Music
Format: DVD from NetFlix on various players.

I try to keep a careful watch on my NetFlix queue so that I get a film I’m in the mood to see or one that fits my schedule. Imagine my chagrin when I realized that just after I finished watching Short Cuts, the second-longest film I had left, the next thing to show up was the full director’s cut of Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace and Music, a nearly four-hour documentary on the festival held in 1969. I shook my head and gritted my teeth, and thought that at the very least, it would be the last of the three-hour-plus movies.

Yeah. And once again, I need to learn to trust. While this is not a perfect documentary, it’s a really good one. I admit that I expected a lot of the music to wash over me, too. Some of it did, but not all of it. This is a smart, well-designed film that deserves to be put in the same sort of category as other well-regarded documentaries like Hoop Dreams. That it was edited in part by a young Martin Scorsese is just a bonus.

The film opens with interviews with locals in and around Bethel, NY, who pretty much to a person praise the attendants of the festival as being respectful. There are interviews with one of the promoters about the creation of the festival. These pop up throughout the film as well, and we learn that the festival was a financial disaster.

The editing plays hob with the actual order of the acts that appeared at Woodstock. Once we get to the music, it starts with Richie Havens, as the festival did and ends with Jimi Hendrix, which is also accurate. In between though, acts appear whenever and wherever they seem to fit. Penultimate act Sha Na Na (yes, really) appear early in the film. Most of the first day’s music is ignored in the film for whatever reason. Canned Heat, who performed on the third day, are placed right after Richie Havens here, in the first hour.

This is a fascinating film and surprisingly open about what it shows. Just after the first appearance of Country Joe on stage in the film, we get a montage of pot smoking, for instance. There’s free conversations with attendants about the open sex and drug use, and plenty of completely non-sexual nudity and stripping thanks to the massive rainstorm.

One of the smartest aspects of the film is that a great deal of it appears in split screen, showing often the same thing but from different angles. We see an act from the side as they perform and another shot from behind, showing the perspective of the stage looking out over the crowd. When Crosby, Stills, and Nash perform, the split screen focuses on one side on Stills and on the other with Crosby and Nash sharing a microphone, then suddenly sometimes putting all three into a single shot.

All of this is fine, but it doesn’t explain some of the decisions made with the music shown here. There are a number of bands who get some big play and others that are virtually ignored. For instance, while Jerry Garcia shows up to be interviewed, there’s not a note of Grateful Dead here. The Band is ignored completely, as are Johnny and Edgar Winter. Blood, Sweat & Tears played for an hour, but you wouldn’t know that to look at this film. Instead, we get two separate appearances by Country Joe MacDonald and a crapton of Jefferson Airplane.

I’m not sure how I feel about the closing section of Jimi Hendrix. I mean, I fully understand that Woodstock was the true apotheosis of Hendrix, the place and time where he was the most solidly Jimi Hendrix, and the performance that is the most defining of his career. But it’s like 20 minutes in the director’s cut. With a little less Hendrix, there’d be room for a Creedence Clearwater Revival song or 30 seconds of Ravi Shankar.

For me, the most interesting parts are the announcements throughout the film. For instance, when the U.S. Army shows up in helicopters to provide free medical attention to the crowd, the initial reaction from the crowd is a negative one. We get the announcement about staying away from the brown acid, the safety announcements to keep off the giant towers during the downpour. Some of these loudspeaker shouts are prosaic and almost cute, like the marriage proposal broadcast to the crowd.

I was a few months away from turning two when Woodstock happened. My parents were established with kids, and even though we lived relatively close (we were in New Jersey at the time), it was not the sort of thing a family of seven would do. I can say now that had I been of the right age at the time, I wouldn’t have gone. Not because of the music but because of the crowd. So much of this seems so miserable—the mass of people, the mud, the rain. Just not for me.

I’m glad I watched this. If you’re a fan of the music from the era, it’s a fair bet that you’ve already seen this. Even if you aren’t, it’s worth your time.

Why to watch Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace and Music: One of the best documentaries going.
Why not to watch: Some strange omissions of those who played the festival.


  1. I've seen the original cut several times (I had it on VHS taped off MTV in '89) but I usually fast forward through the hippie interviews. As I watch them I think "Did people really think that way" It's like they're from another universe. But I do like the music except the Ravi Shankar which goes on and on forever. Maybe that was Monterrey Pop where he goes on and on forever. Anyway, 2 minutes of him would be enough.

    1. It must be Monterrey Pop, because Shankar doesn't appear on stage in this.

      But yeah, the hippie interviews are kind of funny at first, and then puzzling, and then head scratching.

  2. In regards to music vs. the hippie interviews, because of my skewed sense of humor my favorite scene in the entire film is when a wasted hippy walks out of the portable toilet, asks the filmmakers if they want some pot, asks them what they are doing, then asks them what the name of the movie they are making is going to be. One of them replies with the name of the portable toilet company (was it "Port-i-san"? It's been several years since I last saw this). The hippy digests this for a second or two, then something sparks in his brain, and he turns to look at the portable toilets in bewilderment.

    I agree with you on the musical choices. I figured it was one of three things, in descending order of likeliness: the filmmakers picked the acts they liked the best; they picked the ones they felt were going to be best known long after the film was done; or they just didn't get good footage of some of the acts. I would have liked to have seen some CCR, too.

    So with this film, plus the Disney ones, you've now seen all 3 hour plus movies and have only one left in the first 200, right? This is shaping up to be a good month for you and a great way to end the year. I had two 3 hour plus entries left after last month (The Decalogue and Short Cuts) and I doubt I'll take a whack at either for a while. In fact, I've had thoughts about leaving The Decalogue for my final entry.

    1. I gotta tell you, I really envy you getting to watch The Decalogue for the first time. It's genius, and the worst episode in that is better than a lot of other films.

      And yes--one film left in the first 200, one left in the recent additions, and nothing left over three hours. I'm clicking on all cylinders this month, which is good because my November was kind of disappointing.

      As for the inclusion of particular acts in Woodstock, I came up with your second and third choices and never considered your first. All three are possible, obviously. I was disappointed in no Creedence, but was really shocked by no Grateful Dead. That's like...doing a documentary on The Beatles and leaving out all references to George.

  3. I can't believe I'd never seen this until this weekend! I had the album for years in the 1980s and 1990s and people were always pulling it out and playing the FISH cheer and the Fixin'-to-Die Rag and the Star-Spangled Banner and whatever. I'm not sure I ever did listen to the whole thing from start to finish.

    But it was one of the films that TCM showed during Documentary Month and I thought it was way past time for me to see it.

    One of the best (maybe THE best) documentaries I've ever seen. I may have to get the DVD.

    1. Yeah, it's pretty damn great. In terms of music documentaries, I'm partial to I am Trying to Break Your Heart, but this one certainly ranks.