1969, 1970, Movies

Woodstock (1970, Michael Wadleigh)

Note: I am reviewing the director’s cut, not the much shorter theatrical version.

So, I’ve seen the majority of the musical performances in this film multiple times, and some of them many times. (Hendrix’s “Star Spangled Banner” in particular, but also the CSN performance and some others.) I’ve seen them because Woodstock used to be on TV a bunch but also because it feels like every TV program about any of these bands and artists has used footage from it. But I’d never actually watched the film in its entirety and so I figured I should sit down and watch the long version.

It’s often a fairly traditional music festival documentary, with the performances interspersed with shots of the crowd. There are two major differences: the sheer size of the festival and the time it was held necessitated things you won’t see at other festivals, such as the announcements, it becoming a free concert, etc. Second, the interviews with the townies and workers. The latter are probably the most interesting aspects of the film outside of the better music performances and just the shock at seeing so many people in one place (in particular in the helicopter shots).

The film drastically distorts the order of the performances between Richie Havens and Jimi Hendrix, for some reason. I’m not really sure why but it’s actually created false narratives in popular culture, in addition to just giving the viewer a disported experience of the festival itself. (To pick just the weirdest example, Sha Na Na performed immediately before Hendrix in reality.) I guess this was done to make the film flow better but now, 50 years later, it’s really easy for us to find out how wrong the order is. (They couldn’t have known that at the time, but just be honest.)

Aside from the performances – which are often more iconic than good, especially in the case of Ten Years After and Sly and the Family Stone – the real interest in the film is just looking at the immensity of the undertaking and of the crowd. It’s hard to imagine being somewhere like that and really I wouldn’t want to be.

But I’m happy to have finally seen the whole thing. It really is something to see, even if you didn’t grow up with stories about it like I did.

8/10 I guess, despite the weird order of the performances.

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