Greetings again from the darkness. Michael Wadleigh’s 1970 film WOODSTOCK won the Oscar for Best Documentary, feature. The assistant director on the film was a 27 year old budding filmmaker named Martin Scorsese (three years before MEAN STREETS). The footage of the iconic bands, the groovy clothes, the heavy rain, and the mounds of trash fascinated those of us who wanted a taste of what the “peace and love” culture was all about. Co-directors Barak Goodman and Jamila Ephron take a different approach in honor of the festival’s 50th anniversary in this project for PBS’ “American Experience”.
Rather than focus on the extraordinary music, this film provides a glimpse into the arduous process of “how” to put on a huge event. Three years prior to the festival, a business meeting between four gentlemen: John Roberts, Joel Rosenman, Artie Kornfield and Michael Lang, began as a proposal to build a music studio in Woodstock, and instead evolved into a vision for an outdoor festival of music, art, and peace. This is the generation that fought in and protested the Vietnam War, saw their spokesperson Martin Luther King gun downed, and then had their savior Bobby Kennedy violently taken away. The youth of the counterculture were desperate for answers and hope.
Much of what we hear are recollections of those who were there. The memories and feelings of the time are presented as evidence of success. We also witness the behind-the-scenes obstacles and challenges faced by the event’s promoters. All of this comes courtesy of some never-before-seen footage and photographs.
With construction having begun (stage, fencing, etc), the town of Wallkill, NY had second thoughts about having 50,000 hippies descend on their town. That’s right. Initial estimates were off by about ten-fold to what actually happened. Five weeks prior to the festival, the town passed an ordinance prohibiting gatherings of more than 5000 people. This was a problem as acts were booked, tickets sold, and workers were being paid. Dairy farmer Max Yasgur offered up his 600 acre farm, and, frantically, the plan was revised and construction started anew. It was also very interesting to note that the word of the festival was spread through the alternative press. Of course, no social media existed at the time, so getting the word out to the country was especially challenging.
It can be argued whether the Woodstock festival held August 15-17, 1969 in Bethel, NY actually defined a generation, but there is no debating that pulling off such a peaceful event in the face of challenges like political backlash, bad weather, bad drugs, a food shortage, and a crush of humanity, was quite remarkable. No mention is made of the tragedy that unfolded a mere four months later at Altamont, but it’s quite a contrast to the crowd control provided by Wavy Gravy of Hog Farm, the “freak out” tents for bad drug trips, and a community of citizens who emptied their pantries in order to provide food and beverage for thousands in need.
And yes … we do get some samples of the music. We learn Richie Havens was the first act to go on stage simply because he was “there”. He then proceeded to create his iconic “Freedom” spontaneously in front of the audience. Day 2 attendance jumped by at least 100,000 to experience Sly and the Family Stone, and of course, The Who. We get a glimpse of the first ever live show from Crosby, Stills and Nash, and hear farmer Max Yasgur’s complimentary words to the crowd. Peace and Love indeed.
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