Sunday, 22 February 2015

1,001 Films: "Woodstock, 3 Days of Peace and Music" (1970)

According to Michael Wadleigh's defining music documentary Woodstock, the legendary music concert of 1969 got off to a slow yet slightly chaotic start. There were traffic problems as the self-described "freaks" shambled into town in camper vans, or on bare feet. The stage was still under construction as the first performers took to it. And the first night's bill included Richie Havens, Canned Heat and Joan Baez, which would translate today to having to sit through the Afro-Celt Sound System, the Stereophonics and Dido in the space of one evening. To be entirely fair, the headliners that first night were The Who, who blast their way through Eddie Cochran's "Summertime Blues" before Pete Townshend beats up his guitar and throws it into the crowd; this is, as you might imagine, well worth the wait.

Day two began lively - lindyhopping Sha-Na-Na, Joe Cocker doing "With a Little Help From My Friends" - before tailing off. A storm breaks overhead ("Hold onto your neighbour, man!"). Clouds pass. The spliffs come out. Arlo Guthrie shows up. Suddenly, there aren't enough drugs to go around. (Kidding.) A guy who's a bit White Stripes-y walks off stage clutching a marrow as part-payment for his appearance. (Say, what kind of drugs are these?) By the final day, the site has been declared a disaster area, a situation only compounded when Santana take to the stage. Doubts are already being raised as to the effect this concert will have on the landscape, how much money is being made from it, and to whom that money is going. The music, however, gets better: Sly Stone, Joplin. Finally, there is Hendrix, who clears the field with a controlled explosion of noise; those few left standing appear either mesmerised or shell-shocked. (Maybe it's the drugs.)

So much footage was shot that Wadleigh and his editorial team - which included Thelma Schoonmaker and Martin Scorsese - have to resort to using split-screen in an attempt to fit it all in. The soundtrack similarly sprawls, mixing up live performance with sounds sourced from the furthest extremes of this site: hippie chanting, campsite soundbites, earnest backstage muso chat, those PA announcements about "bad acid" that inspired the bad liquorice bit in Wayne's World 2. Altman's M*A*S*H came out the very same year: maybe he got himself into an early screening. Arguably the weakest aspects are the performances, which will, in the main, mean very little to those of us who weren't around at the time. (The performers receive little in the way of introduction, so your kids won't have a clue.) 

Still, much of the film bears out the contention that those who go to Glastonbury for the bands have kind of missed the point. Far more interesting are the inserts chronicling the logistics of organising such an event, illustrating how these happenings get tangled and untangled as they go along, and history is often born of near-disaster: it's Havens struggling to retune his guitar while trying to introduce his next song, officers of the law attempting to reroute a snarled-up onsite traffic system, kids explaining to the camera or one another how they're going to change the world, or how an open relationship does and doesn't work. It has dated, but only in the superficial manner typically suffered by historical documents; it remains an experience, and - if by no means a replacement for being there - an admirably comprehensive, multilateral one at that. Forget the music; what you take home is the message, along with a yearning for a hot meal and several good nights' sleep.

(January 2005)

Woodstock, 3 Days of Peace and Music is available on DVD through Warner Home Video.

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