Jeff Giles reviewed the Blu-ray version of the new 40th Anniversary Edition Director’s Cut of the Woodstock film a couple of weeks ago. I haven’t read Jeff’s review because I make it a point not to read any reviews of something that I’m working on until after I’ve finished my review. So this may end up being a point-counterpoint, or maybe we’ll agree on everything.
I first saw Michael Wadleigh’s film in a theater in New York City when it was released in 1970. It was the same night as the Knicks seventh game victory over the Lakers (the game where a hobbled Willis Reed provided one of the most inspirational performances in sports history), and since there were no vcr’s, and certainly no dvr’s yet, I missed the game. The things we do for love. I may have seen the film once in the years since then. The biggest surprise for me after all these years is that the film, so fondly remembered for the bands, is not about the music at all. It’s about people. The people who organized the whole thing. The people who went and lived to tell the tale. The townspeople who were massively inconvenienced that weekend. The man who cleaned the Port-O-Sans.
Don’t misunderstand me, there were some incredible performances at Woodstock, but did you ever wonder why so many bands who played didn’t make it into the finished film? The answer is that in a number of cases the performances were so bad that they weren’t worth including. So what you’re getting in this film is really the cream of the crop. Other performances were cut because of time and film constraints, and some of those have been included in this three-disc set. We get additional performances from the likes of Joan Baez, Country Joe McDonald, Santana, Canned Heat, The Who, Jefferson Airplane, Joe Cocker, and Sha Na Na. There are also songs from bands who did not appear in the film, including Mountain, Grateful Dead (yes, Jerry is seen in the original film rolling a joint, but you don’t see the band playing), Creedence, Johnny Winter, and Paul Butterfield. That amounts to two hours of never before seen concert footage from some of the era’s biggest acts.
Woodstock: Untold Stories, as the new material is called, starts with a short segment showing people arriving at the very start of the festival. Highlights of the previously unseen footage include Al Wilson’s ethereal vocals and slide guitar work on the Canned Heat jam “On the Road Again,” Mountain presaging the birth of heavy metal with “Beside the Sea,” The Who’s extended “My Generation” encore, Jorma leading the Airplane through a speed-soaked “3/5 of a Mile in 10 Seconds,” and Johnny Winter and Paul Butterfield with very different, but equally valid, expressions of the blues. Best of all though are the three songs from Creedence, reminding us, as if we needed reminding, of what a great band they were. And as if all of that wasn’t enough, there’s a featurette gallery with more than 15 segments, tracing the festival and the filming from start to finish.
The original Woodstock Music and Art Fair took place on Max Yasgur’s dairy farm in the little town of Bethel, NY on the weekend of August 15-18, 1969. It was organized by Michael Lang, Artie Kornfeld, John Roberts, and Joel Rosenman. 32 musical acts appeared over the four days. The band Quill opened on Friday, but it was more of a test of the sound system, which was not working properly yet, than a real set. The first real set was by Richie Havens. Jimi Hendrix closed it out on Monday morning, although much of the crowd was gone by then. Hendrix had arrived on Sunday, and the promoters offered to let him go on at about 10 p.m., the prime slot, but Hendrix’s manager insisted that as the headliner, Hendrix should go on last. That’s how he ended up playing to large empty spaces on Monday morning. There were still about 50,000 people there when he played, but that was nothing compared to the half a million who had been there at the peak of the festival. It didn’t seem to bother Jimi any, as he turned in an incendiary performance, highlighted by his classic version of “The Star Spangled Banner.”
Most people have seen the great musical performances, so I won’t go into detail here, but in addition to Hendrix, the moments include the nearly frightening intensity of The Who, the rhythmic juggernaut of a then unknown band from California called Santana, the spastic emotion of Joe Cocker, the psychedelic sound of Jefferson Airplane, and the crowd-pleasing funk of Sly and the Family Stone.
As I said earlier, it was the commentary by ordinary people that I found particularly fascinating this time around. Among the townspeople, there are those who are angry that so many “hippies” had invaded their town, eaten all their food, and clogged up the roads. Others, including the local chief of police, are more conciliatory. They point out that the kids are well behaved, and polite. There is more concern for the welfare of the concert-goers than anything else. There are kids from communes who come to Woodstock together, but are not, you know, together. There’s the guy who cleans the port-o-sans who is just doing his job, and doesn’t seem to see anything unusual or even disgusting about it. There’s the brown acid that’s “not particularly good,” and pot everywhere you look. And then there’s the rain. Saturday afternoon brought a torrential storm that left the whole area in a quagmire. Everyone made the best of it. In fact, the real story of Woodstock is that everyone made the best of everything. It’s a tale of overcoming adversity, but more than just overcoming it – reveling in it.
The whole shebang has been remastered from original elements, and a 5.1 audio mix has been added. Original Woodstock sound engineer (and Hendrix producer) Eddie Kramer helped out with that. The Ultimate Collector’s Edition is available in Blu-ray Hi-Def as well as DVD, and there’s also a two-disc Special Edition DVD set.
Woodstock was a pivotal event in the history of this nation. It gave voice to a generation. It gave young people the opportunity to gather with people who shared their values, from around the country. It showed the world that people could live together, even in difficult circumstances, in peace and harmony. It gave birth to the dream of a “Woodstock Nation.” Four months later, that dream was murdered in the darkness of the Altamont Speedway in California.