By Elias Savada.
Fifty years ago (gulp!) I never made it to Woodstock. I didn’t even try, although I had a hallucinogenic blast four years later at the 1973 Summer Jam in Watkins Glen (instant weekend population: 600,000). $10 to see the Allman Brothers Band, Grateful Dead and The Band perform. Drove up from D.C., beat the traffic jam, got covered in mud, and loved the music. Heaven.
No doubt, I did it because of Woodstock, devouring front page (“Traffic Uptight at Hippiefest”) and tv stories, Michael Wadleigh’s ground-breaking documentary, and its soundtrack album. (My wife never made it either, as she was told by a friend of the bumper-to-bumper-to-bumper mess getting up there, so she stayed home and listened to her unused ticket.) Now, a half-century after Max Yasgur welcomed half-a-million or so (150,000 were expected) people to his dairy farm in not-too-far-upstate New York, filmmaker Barak Goodman has provided the how-to slant on the music festival that defined a generation. Rock promoter/emcee Bill Graham is caught on camera backstage, a few feet from the expanse of humanity in front of it, “You realize that half these people don’t have tickets, and there are people five miles away, sitting on the highway, with tickets, who have driven two and three thousand miles. Whatever had to be done to make it right…this was wrong.”
And that’s the gist of this film. Not to let you trip the breeze fantastic and groove on the tunes, but to tell the story of how Woodstock came to be. It’s not another showcase of the talent that performed (although some of them make it on screen, briefly). It’s everything you didn’t know about one of the quintessential moments in the history of Rock and Roll. In 2017, the festival site became part of the National Register of Historic Places. If you can’t visit it, watch this film.
One of the more fascinating things I (and you) didn’t know – and I had to freeze the frame to get the detail – is that, according to the Woodstock Medical Log, the following were among the hundreds of treated issues: Abortion, incomplete and complete (8), Abortion, threatened [really?] (12), Allergy (112), Anxiety State [no surprise there] (163), Appendicitis (2), Blisters, foot [lots of walking!] (172), Burns [lots of joints to light] (86), Concussion (8), Constipation [no shit] (16), Foreign Body, foot [as in foot in mouth? – or up the ass?] (92!), Headache (80), Hemorrhoids (4!), Puncture Wound, foot (135), Pregnancy, treatment of (5), Rat Bite (11), and Syncope [a.k.a. fainting] (17). So, not all fun and games, but considering the crowd size, only two people died. And, surprise, the U.S. Army came to the rescue by supplying 45 doctors to deal with the health issues.
Yes, the festival organizers were in deep shit, according to producer John Roberts. He and his partners ultimate realized it wasn’t the money that was important. “It’s a free concert from now on.” Even with the health and sanitary issues that grew as the weekend progressed, it was the lack of food (the trucks couldn’t get through) that seemed to aggravate attendees the most, until the town’s locals opened their pantries and contributed to a homegrown food bank air ferried over to the crowd.
Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation offers rain-soaked memories and affectionate recollections of how it began and ended in a neat-and-clean 97 minutes, courtesy of PBS and American Experience Films.
Interviews start with festival producer Roberts and Joel Rosenman. Roberts, whose grandfather founded the company that brought Polident denture cleanser tablets to the masses, had some seed money, and when their first undertaking, a sound studio, proved profitable, their friends and business acquaintances soon came aboard the venture that would birth Woodstock. This background is accompanied by archival photos, stock footage, voice-over commentaries, and a nicely pared script credited to Goodman and Don Kleszy. Basically: set the perspective, reminisce, then provide some very compressed life-in-the day highlights. Filter in reminiscences of a dozen or so festival attendees (including my Harrison [NY] High School classmate Jon Jaboolian).
It’s fascinating to learn of Woodstock’s origins and all the changes it underwent before welcoming its masses. There’s the lease signed by the town of Wallkill and the poster promoting feel-good, artsy-light music “Aquarian Expositions” there. Then there’s photos of the “concerned citizens” of that goodly conservative town putting the NIMBY kibosh to that dream six weeks before Richie Havens would take opening honors for the event. Heck, all folks wanted was take our young minds off the Vietnam War. The film cues up the protests and blasts Jefferson Airplane’s “Volunteers” on its soundtrack as it gets you in the mood for a few days of peace and music in August 1969.
Woodstock sets all the pieces in place during the counter-culture times of the late 1960s – particularly the war and the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. America needed an escape, a release value, if ever so briefly, from the decade’s turmoils. It was Woodstock that brought many of them together in one spot for free love, drugs, and rock-and-roll.
As Day 1, Friday, August 15, begins its segment 45 minutes in, the Youngbloods’ “Let Get Together” overlays images and footage of the thousands descending on the venue. Never mind that the band didn’t play Woodstock; it’s a mood-setting moment. Acoustical and folk sets were abundant, as it took some ingenuity – and a helicopter – to get the rock groups past the stalled roadways. By the second day, the bigger, louder attractions mellowed the still growing crowds, shaking the hills of Bethel.
No, Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation won’t rock you with the music performed there, but it will frame memories (for those of us old enough to remember) and educate those born in the decades since. That the festival went on as planned was a miracle; that just about everyone there survived was a testament to the extraordinary folks who helped calm any anxious moments that weekend. It was a small town that existed for a short, glorious time five decades ago, then disappeared back into the rest of the world.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the horror film German Angst and the new documentary Nuts! He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (the revised edition will be published in 2019 by Centipede Press).