Good news, home theater-owning former hippies! You can now relive the original Woodstock festival, in all of its muddy, THC-laced glory, through the marvelous magic of a new 1080p hi-def and Dolby TrueHD 5.1 surround sound transfer — with an extra disc of bonus performances and assorted extra content — thanks to Warner Bros.’ brand new 40th anniversary reissue of Michael Wadleigh’s Oscar-winning documentary. For once, we’re looking at a title that lives up to the word “ultimate”; not only does this new box collect the four-hour Woodstock director’s cut, but it tacks on two more hours of performance footage, plus another hour of featurettes, plus BD-Live content — and that doesn’t even take into account the box itself, which handsomely houses the movie in a fringe leather case, or its other assorted contents, which include a reprint of Life‘s Woodstock issue, a replica ticket, an iron-on patch, a Lucite paperweight, and more. Unlike the vast majority of catalog titles seeing Blu-ray release, Woodstock takes advantage of the new medium’s capabilities; not only do you get a superior picture and sound, but the studio has taken care to add plenty of extra everything, expanding the movie along with its price tag (this set lists for $69.99, but Amazon has it available for pre-order at $48.99 — and their version features an exclusive third disc).
Personally, to put it mildly, I’m not in the target demographic for Woodstock; I’ve never found the ’60s all that fascinating, and although I consider myself a fan of many of the artists who played the festival, the movie has always struck me as a bloated, spaced-out beast of a documentary — the kind of thing you need to have been at Woodstock to enjoy. (Or high.) All that aside, I can’t deny that it’s a beautiful film, and if it seems to go on forever, then it’s just living up to Wadleigh’s original goal; he did, after all, oversee more than 365,000 feet of film, all of which was jealously guarded from Warners executives, and he would have turned in a five or six-hour film if the studio had let him. Like any documentary worth its salt, Woodstock approaches its subject as if it’s endlessly fascinating, and even if you tend to think that seven-plus hours is a mite excessive for a movie about any event, Wadleigh’s enthusiasm is as infectuous as his shots are beautifully framed. Woodstock is as fluid as the spirit of the festival, tumbling from widescreen to split-screen and back again, a visual extension of what was going on all around Wadleigh and his crew.
The new video transfer is a noticeable upgrade from the previous DVD release, but as you might imagine, it hasn’t escaped the ravages of time or the limitations of the source material. Originally filmed on Ã‰clair 16mm shoulder-mounted cameras, the movie has always been more of a ground-level look at the festival than a thing of technical beauty, but that’s part of its charm; though I suppose some might quibble with this, I’d say a Woodstock without grain, fuzz, warp, and scratches would be one not really worth watching. Along those lines, although the new version’s soundtrack represents a substantial improvement over previous releases, you can’t forget that it was originally recorded on eight-track, using a remote sound truck, in the late ’60s, and to expect a thing of flawless beauty would be unreasonable. Again, though, the various hiccups are part of the experience, and the new mix does a terrific job of dropping you right down in there with the audience. As easy as it might be to complain about assorted fidelity issues, it’s just as easy to get lost in the freshly scrubbed energy of the performances.
The second disc offers extra performances by Santana (“Evil Ways”), Canned Heat (“I’m Her Man” and “On the Road Again”), the Who (“We’re Not Gonna Take It” and “My Generation”), Joe Cocker (“Something’s Coming On”) and others, in addition to a lengthy featurette titled Woodstock: From Festival to Feature, which takes a look back at the making of the film through the eyes of Wadleigh, associate producer Dale Bell, and a number of other involved parties (including assistant director Martin Scorsese). Here, as with the rest of the box, Warner Bros. deserves to be commended for pulling out all the stops; I’ve reviewed a fairly long list of catalog Blu-ray titles recently, and have had to come up with new and different ways to tell people they might as well save their money and stick with the DVD, but Woodstock is both a lovingly curated reissue and a fairly compelling argument for the purchase of a Blu-ray player. Whether you still pine for the Age of Aquarius or you’re just an ardent film fan, this is one pricey box that’s well worth the investment.