Even though it’s a documentary about the quintessential ’60s event, Woodstock is among the essential movies of the ’70s. As endless historians have noted, the movie captures a moment that had already slipped into history by the time the film was released, since the slaying at a notorious Rolling Stones concert in Altamont effectively snuffed the peace-and-love dream exemplified by ’60s music festivals. The poignant experience of beholding a utopian vision that was destined to remain unrealized lends bittersweet gravitas to Woodstock. However, the movie would have been remarkable under any circumstances. Given tremendous access to the preparation and execution of the Woodstock Music & Art Fair, filmmaker Michael Wadleigh and his crew captured the gradual birth of the so-called “Woodstock Nation.”
Sprawling over three hours and, thanks to tricky split-screen editing, sometimes sprawling across three different frames, the movie follows an approach that’s simultaneously phantasmagoric and straightforward. Simple scenes, like lyrical vignettes of hippies bathing in ponds, are presented as unvarnished reportage, while the most incendiary music performances, like the Who’s speaker-blasting set, get the full visual-assault treatment. Wadleigh displays remarkable sensitivity toward the material, treating each sequence in just the right way, so viewers can savor the illusion of being at the festival. Plus, by condensing three days into three hours, the movie becomes much more than just a filmed concert—it’s a freewheeling dissertation on the way a generation hoped to change the world for the better. For instance, when promoters finally acknowledge the obvious by starting, “It’s a free concert from now on,” the film cuts to kids pushing down chain-link fences and storming the grassy hills of the festival area. Seeing this moment is like watching flower children topple the divisive us-and-them structures of the Establishment.
Great personalities populate the movie, from mellow, vest-loving promoter Michael Lang to toothless hippie hero Wavy Gravy, and the unforgettable musical moments are countless. A “scared shitless” Crosby, Stills and Nash playing their first-ever concert. Jimi Hendrix serenading an early-morning crowd with his wailing take on “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Bands like Canned Heat, Santana, and Ten Years After jamming as if their survival depends on finding the right groove. It’s all amazing, and it’s all right there, captured by Wadleigh’s team and assembled by an editing crew that included a young Martin Scorsese. Few documentaries have captured significant historical events as completely and with such an appropriate aesthetic approach. Therefore, as if being the most important rock movie ever made wasn’t enough, Woodstock is also, arguably, the definitive look at ’60s counterculture, in all of its gloriously grubby excess.
Woodstock: OUTTA SIGHT