The Woodstock Movie: what a trip

This weekend marks the 46th anniversary of the Woodstock Music & Arts Festival, that took place just outside the town of Bethel, New York in the middle of the last summer of the 1960’s and has become a beacon for the love and peace generation.

Sitting here in 2015 looking backwards to the 1960’s (as I seem to spend so much of my life doing) gives a strange perspective. No other decade in modern history carries as much cultural baggage as the era of the Beatles and the Stones, of hippies and flower power, of pot and acid and expanding your mind maaan. The whole decade has become one giant cliche in many ways, a series of idealised visions of some kind of ‘golden age’ where through the power of music, drugs, and free love people had a really groovy and far out time; the ultimate party, a never to be repeated golden age. My experience of the 60’s exists as a series of echoes, of rose-tinted memories of memories that scream “you missed out on the most amazing time ever” at us from the past.

And of course if we follow this cliche to its natural conclusion we arrive at Woodstock, the apotheosis of the age. Way beyond being merely a music festival, what happened over the course of one long August weekend on a dairy farm in the Catskills near the town of Bethel, New York has entered in to modern folklore. And were it not for the fact that the organisers had the excellent foresight to decide to film the whole thing we would have nothing but the addled memories of memories of those who claim they were there to rely on.

Which isn’t to say that the film should be taken as an accurate historical document. Like all documentaries, the editing process can’t help but distort events as miles of film roll have to be turned in to something palatable for an audience. This movie certainly does that with the timeline of performances jumbled and many acts who appeared cut from the film (including the Grateful Dead, The Band, and Creedence Clearwater Revival). One can only imagine some of the agonising decisions that had to be made in the dining room at the time.

On repeated viewing, though it’s not the music but the bits in between that become the most fascinating in terms of getting some kind of feel of what Woodstock was actually like for the people there. This interview below, with a girl who seems to be working in one of the stalls is a great example, and I love the way she talks about this cat and that cat, and the chaotic ambience of everything going on behind her…

Directed by Michael Wadleigh, the film was released in 1970, to near universal acclaim and enormous box office success, grossing some $50 million during its run, something which more than offset the loss the organisers and backers of the festival hade made on the weekend itself when the overwhelming influx of people turned what was intended to be a money-making, ticketed festival in to a free-for-all. Its importance is such that it has been selected for preservation by the Library of Congress and there’s no denying that as a record of its time it has enormous value.

It is of course the music more than anything else that continues to resonate and so many great performances from the weekend exist picking a few from the film seems almost impossible (just go watch the film) so instead here are a few fabulous excerpts that didn’t make the final cut…

Canned Heat – Woodstock Boogie

One of the great successes of the weekend boogie-blues outfit Canned Heat’s appearance at around sunset on Saturday evening was at least partly down to having such a prime spot at the heart of the festival but in truth was largely thanks to a hard-driving set that got the whole festival in the mood to party. Woodstock Boogie was put together by the band especially for the night and actually lasted about 28 minutes with an extended set of solos from the whole band in turn. A full-length audio version can be found here.

The Band – The Weight

Working as an editor on this film was a 28 year old Martin Scorsese who in 5 years time would make The Last Waltz with The Band, and set yet another milstone in the concert movie genre. By then this group of musicians who had initially found fame as Bob Dylan’s backing band had become legendary musical figures. However, there was no clips of them in the film and they get barely a mention in most people’s recollections. Shame, because as this clip of them performing one of their signature songs shows they were on great form.

Creedence Clearwater Revival – Keep On Chooglin’

Of all the bands omitted from the film CCR’s is maybe the most inexplicable, and the full set has since become available showing just what blistering form they were on that night. Lead singer John Fogerty didn’t hold the same opinion though and apparently was the one to veto any inclusion in the film, feeling their performance was below par. Bassist Stu Cook disagreed, stating “The performances are classic CCR and I’m still amazed by the number of people who don’t even know we were one of the headliners at Woodstock ’69.”.

The lack of these clips in the movie is a testament to just how good the footage included actually is. At some 3 hours and 40 minutes the director’s cut is well worth a watch for those who want to experience the full trip. By the end of it you really do feel slightly exhausted by it all, albeit in a good way. It was a moment in time that created ripples that can still be felt today. Of course, a dovcumentary can only give you a small flavour of what it was actually like, but at least we have some kind of doorway in to this unrepeatable gathering that so neatly bookmarked the end of the 60’s in that last summer of the decade. Today it seems like the last outburst of optimism of that time, shortly before the advent of the 70’s and all the grim reality it contained would forever burst the bubble of a generation that dared to dream of a world where mankind lived in peace and harmony. Woodstock must have seemed like an affirmation of that dream, that we can come together, we can have a new dawn. In the Woodstock movie the marijuana and patchouli oil infused smell of that generation’s hope comes wafting out through the screen. It’s a trip, man, a real trip.

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