B Historical documentary
Directed by Barak Goodman
Do we really need another documentary about a certain 1969 music festival? After all, Michael Wadleigh’s epic film became one of the most beloved documentaries of all time – at least for people in my generation.
Well, yes, we do. Wadleigh’s combination of concert film and celebration of the counterculture was made when Woodstock was a recent memory, and a lot of people still thought the hippy lifestyle could save humanity. Half a century later, we know better. A more, shall we say, sober point of view might tell us something interesting.
Unfortunately, Barak Goodman’s new documentary, Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation, is too nostalgic to take on that job. But it gives much more background information than the 1970 doc – how the festival was planned and organized, the set list, and so on. It’s still worth watching if you were ever part of the “Woodstock nation,” or if you’re just curious about it.
The new documentary starts by putting the concert in its historical moment. The film shows the opposition to the Vietnam war and the rise of the counterculture. From there it explains and shows us the difficult creation of the concert; how they had to find a location, build a stage, figure out how many toilets they needed, and how, at the last moment, they had to move the event from one town to another. Time was so tight they had to choose between building another stage or a fence. They built the stage, and the unfinished fence made it a free concert and a historical moment.
Then the film goes through the four days of the supposedly three-day concert, showing who played when, what was going on in the audience, and why almost no one was left for Hendrix’s great performance. This is not a concert film, nor should it be. You get plenty of music in the background, but it’s not what this movie is about.
I doubt any original footage was shot for the new doc. The images come from historical footage – television news clips, still photos, maybe a home movie or two, and, of course, coverage from Wadleigh’s team of camera operators. Most of these are outtakes, but if you’ve seen the 1970 documentary as many times as I have, you’ll recognize an occasional shot.
The new Woodstock doc uses multiple narrators telling their own first-person stories. These include the concert’s producers, staff members, townspeople, and a few of the 400,000+ concertgoers. We never see any of these people as they look today. That might have killed the nostalgia.
All the concert-going narrators appear to have had a wonderful time there, which makes me wonder about what bits of narration were left on the cutting room floor. Let’s face it: If an unexpected 400,000 people show up at an outdoor event, and legitimate ticket holders can’t get in, and it rains, and it is almost impossible to get in and out, a lot of people will be unhappy.
Yes, the movie mentions bad acid trips, shortages of food and medical supplies, and other problems. But in the film’s narrative, these seeming disasters were all fixed by good people getting together and finding a solution.
I would have liked more about the problems. Even the 1970 film shows a woman in tears and a doctor admitting that two people died. And considering the new film’s subtitle, Three Days That Defined a Generation, I would have liked something about the festival’s effect on society. Remember that Woodstock spawned Altamont.
Woodstock was not a sign of the coming utopia. It was just one big, fun, highly unsanitary party.