Case Number 16568

WOODSTOCK: 40TH ANNIVERSARY EDITION

Warner Bros. // 1970 // 225 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Victor Valdivia (Retired) // June 9th, 2009

The Charge

"By the time we got to Woodstock,
We were half a million strong
And everywhere was a song and a celebration."

-- "Woodstock" by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young

Opening Statement

In many ways, Woodstock was one of the most astoundingly lucky accidents in cinema history. The Woodstock Festival was never originally intended as anything other than a reasonably priced music festival, of which there were hundreds in 1969, and initially there were no plans to film any of it. At the last minute, however, a camera crew arrived to capture some musical performances and maybe a few interviews. What they filmed, however, would be the high-water mark of the '60s: a festival that was overrun by nearly half a million people who came to show their allegiance to the new counterculture but who treated each other and the bands with generosity and gentleness. Woodstock would be a document of the moment when the crowd became the star, and if the feeling that maybe anything could happen would be just as fleeting as the festival, at least that moment was captured for all to see. Woodstock remains the ultimate documentary of the '60s, and while the new Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace & Music: The Director's Cut: 40th Anniversary Two-Disc Special Edition isn't quite as definitive as fans would like, it's still a must for anyone who is interested in the union of music and culture.

Facts of the Case

Woodstock was filmed over three days: August 15, 16, and 17, 1969, at a rock festival at Bethel, New York. Here are the acts and the songs they perform:

Richie Havens:
* "Handsome Johnny"
* "Freedom"

Canned Heat:
* "A Change is Gonna Come"

Joan Baez:
* "Joe Hill"
* "Swing Low Sweet Chariot"

The Who:
* "We're Not Gonna Take It"
* "Summertime Blues"

Sha-Na-Na:
* "At the Hop"

Joe Cocker & the Grease Band:
* "With a Little Help from My Friends"

Country Joe & the Fish:
* "Rock & Soul Music"

Arlo Guthrie:
* "Coming Into Los Angeles"

Crosby, Stills, & Nash:
* "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes"

Ten Years After:
* "I'm Going Home"

Jefferson Airplane:
* "Won't You Try"
* "Uncle Sam's Blues"

John Sebastian:
* "Younger Generation"

Country Joe McDonald:
* "I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixing-To-Die Rag"

Santana:
* "Soul Sacrifice"

Sly & the Family Stone:
* "I Want to Take You Higher!"

Janis Joplin:
* "Work Me Lord"

Jimi Hendrix:
* "Voodoo Chile"
* "The Star-Spangled Banner"
* "Purple Haze"

The Evidence

Woodstock, which won the Oscar for best documentary of 1970, has often been praised as a sterling documentary-maybe even the best of all time-but it may take several viewings to realize just what an extraordinary feat director Michael Wadleigh accomplished with the film. He didn't just assemble some 120 miles of footage shot over the three-day event into a watchable film, he made an extraordinary compelling document that captures, for better and for worse, the emotional and artistic highs and lows of the festival while also serving as a document of its time and place. For the subsequent generations who watched the film, it can safely be said that anyone who wants to understand the cultural significance of the '60s can't do much better than Woodstock.

The first important decision that Wadleigh and his assistant director Martin Scorsese made was to take the original 16mm footage and use it in a 70mm frame. However, instead of blowing it up, Wadleigh, Scorsese, and the film's editors chose to split the 70mm frame into pieces and insert simultaneously running films into them, sometimes in three places. This was a masterstroke for two reasons. First, it allowed them to use more of the footage than if they had simply blown up the footage. Even more importantly, these simultaneous running films gave a far more accurate depiction of the event. Rather than simply focusing on one point on the screen, viewers will find something to watch at right, in the center and at the left -- much as they would do at a real concert, especially a festival. This also allows viewers to see how audience members react to the musicians' performances and how the musicians themselves interact onstage in a far more understandable way. Plus, the multi-channel soundtrack allows for more ambient sounds to be included, such as Chip Monck's deadpan stage announcements, that add to the overall atmosphere. It's these ingenious technical tricks that Wadleigh and Scorsese came up with that allow Woodstock to capture the feeling of being there even for those who were not.

Even more significant, though, were some of the directorial choices that Wadleigh made that seemed peculiar at the time but in retrospect added to Woodstock's importance. Many executives, for instance, were appalled that Wadleigh chose to end Woodstock not with a bang but with a whimper. Specifically, Wadleigh chose to show footage of the muddy, garbage-strewn field as the festival wound down on Monday morning to the strains of Jimi Hendrix's mournful guitar playing. Similarly, many hip critics of the era were also dismayed that Wadleigh didn't shy away from showing the negative effects of the festival. The shots of the staff medic casually discussing the fatal drug overdoses he saw, the interview with the rakish young man and his doormat of a sex buddy -- these are all genuinely uncomfortable moments in a film that's supposed to be the hippies' chance to shine. Wadleigh, however, was far more insightful than his critics. Yes, there were some beautiful moments of generosity and peace at the festival. Yes, it was indeed remarkable that nearly half a million people came together without any major crimes of violence (something, unfortunately, which cannot be said of Woodstock's 30th anniversary concert). Still, there were fundamentally dark elements to the '60s concept of freedom and it would be a mistake to deny that, especially for a film that is meant to display the counterculture in its entirety. Of course, only months after Woodstock, the darkness of the counterculture would be clearly evident in many ways: the Rolling Stones' bloody debacle at Altamont (captured famously in Gimme Shelter), the Charles Manson murders, the drug-related deaths of Woodstock performers Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, and the killings at Kent State. In showing the less-than-savory moments of the festival, what Wadleigh is doing is carefully demonstrating that the counterculture contained the seeds of its own destruction and that those signs were clearly visible to anyone who was looking. Wadleigh clearly had the foresight to turn Woodstock into both a celebration of its moment and an elegy for the beginning of the end, an amazing achievement for a film that could have simply been mere self-congratulation interspersed with music.

Then, of course, there's the music itself. It's almost taken for granted that the performances are all excellent, but that's not necessarily true. It's more accurate to say that they're all representative in the same way the film is. True, John Sebastian's tuneless hippie ramblings, Ten Years After's interminable guitar noodling, and Sha Na Na's tiresome novelty music were as much a part of the festival as any of the other artists and deserve to be acknowledged. Most viewers, though, would be forgiven for skipping them as fast as possible. It's better to recognize the truly monumental performances: Sly Stone turning the stage into a whirling tornado of energy and soul, Jimi Hendrix redefining himself into a proto-funk-metal guitarist while leaving behind his psychedelic past, and the Who's rendition of Tommy's climactic refrain ("See me/Feel me/Touch me/Heal me") that has since become one of the film's defining moments. Crosby, Stills & Nash (accompanied by an unseen Neil Young) acquit themselves well in only their second concert performance, delivering a ravishing version of "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes" while Santana, who didn't even have a record deal at the time, turns "Soul Sacrifice" into a Latin-rock masterpiece. Not all the performances are as stellar, but the best ones are so spectacular that they make Woodstock a must for music fans, even if you're not familiar with all the artists here.

Woodstock was released in this nearly four-hour director's cut version in 1994, and issued as a single-disc DVD in 1999. For this new release, Warner Bros. has put together a three-disc edition that's a little peculiar. The packaging is strange. Instead of a three-disc box, the film itself is packaged in a standard two-disc case and the extras are on a third disc packaged in a standalone cardboard slipcover that's thrown in as an afterthought. The film has been remastered and the anamorphic 2.36:1 transfer looks much better than the previous DVD issue. Colors are much more vivid and the image is sharper and brighter with only a few minor nicks and scratches. The Dolby Digital 5.1 surround is superb. It's nice and loud for the music, but the ambient sound effects are carefully mixed to stand out. Crowd noises, stage announcements, and even birds chirping are clearly audible from the rear speakers, an added feature that really does make you feel like you're there.

It's the new extras that are rather hit-and-miss. The film comes with a commercial for the Museum of Bethel Woods (4:34), a museum to '60s culture built on the site of the concert, that's little more than an infomercial. The remaining extras are on the third disc. On the plus side, there's nearly two and a half hours of additional performances, as well as brief alternate openings and closings. Here are the new performances:

Joan Baez:
* "One Day at a Time"

Country Joe McDonald:
* "Flying High"

Santana:
* "Evil Ways"

Canned Heat:
* "I'm Her Man"
* "On the Road Again"

Mountain:
* "Beside the Sea"
* "Southbound Train"

Grateful Dead:
* "Turn On Your Love Light"

Creedence Clearwater Revival:
* "Born on the Bayou"
* "I Put a Spell on You"
* "Keep On Chooglin'"

The Who:
* "We're Not Gonna Take It"
* "My Generation"

Jefferson Airplane:
* "3/5 of a Mile in 10 Seconds"

Joe Cocker:
* "Something's Coming On"

Johnny Winter:
* "Mean Town Blues"

Paul Butterfield:
* "Morning Sunrise"

Sha Na Na:
* "Teen Angel"

As could be expected, these vary wildly depending on the performer. It's likely, for instance, that only the most devout Deadhead could possibly endure all 38 excruciating minutes of "Turn On Your Love Light." The CCR, Canned Heat, and Johnny Winter performances, on the other hand, are all of such phenomenal quality that it's a mystery why they weren't included in the original film. Similarly, the Who, Santana, and Jefferson Airplane songs are all top-notch and are highly recommended for fans of those bands. It would have been nice to have even more performances (the Band, for instance), but these are worthy extras.

The real disappointment is in "Woodstock: From Festival to Feature" (76:53), the new documentary on the making of the film. It includes interviews with Wadleigh, Scorsese, producer Bob Maurice, editor Thelma Schoonmaker, sound engineer Eddie Kramer, and Woodstock promoter Michael Lang, amongst others. They all have interesting memories and thoughts about the concert and film to share, but the documentary isn't assembled in a way that allows them to do so. Instead of a long film, the documentary is chopped up into five-minute chunks devoted to specific issues, such as the editing or the sound recording. This isn't very interesting to watch; it's mostly just chaotic and jumbled with no real flow or order. It's even more disappointing that there's no musical analysis. Apart from some archival interview clips of Jefferson Airplane and Johnny Winter, the only musicians interviewed are a couple of sidemen for Santana and Ten Years After. You'll hear a lot about the filmmaking process, but any actual discussion of the music itself is meager. There's a brief featurette (3:18) on the Hog Farm commune, a group of hippies who appear in the film providing food and supplies during the festival. Finally, there's "Hugh Hefner and Michael Wadleigh: The Woodstock Connection" (9:40), an interview with Playboy publisher Hefner, who interviewed Wadleigh on his TV show Playboy After Dark when the film was released. There's some archival interview footage that's at least worth seeing, but Hefner's connection to Woodstock is so tenuous that it's hard to see what the point of this featurette is. Some more musical insight and context would have been better instead.

Closing Statement

It's not an overstatement to say that Woodstock captures the spirit of the '60s counterculture better than any other film or documentary. What's often forgotten, however, is what a remarkable achievement that really is. Wadleigh and Scorsese didn't just capture the elation; they also captured the mounting dread. What Woodstock does better than any documentary or long-winded book is demonstrate, clearly and compellingly, the victories that the '60s counterculture won and the eventual reasons that it couldn't last. It's a film that serves as a lesson to younger generations who wanted to know what the time was really like. All of this is done in a way that is visually beautiful, dramatically arresting, and musically exquisite. This may not be quite the DVD package fans were hoping for, but Woodstock itself is an absolute must for any film or music fan.

The Verdict

Woodstock is not guilty because it's such a brilliant and comprehensive document. This new edition, while not especially well-packaged and assembled, is ultimately acquitted because the remastering and new performances are just too good to pass up.

Review content copyright © 2009 Victor Valdivia; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC

Scales of Justice
Video: 90
Audio: 95
Extras: 80
Acting: 95
Story: 95
Judgment: 95

Perp Profile
Studio: Warner Bros.
Video Formats:
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic

Audio Formats:
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)

Subtitles:
* English (SDH)

Running Time: 225 Minutes
Release Year: 1970
MPAA Rating: Rated R

Distinguishing Marks
* Bonus Performances
* Featurettes

Accomplices
* IMDb
http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0066580/combined