CULTURE: The American broadcaster PBS has launched a new documentary about one of the key events in American modern history: Woodstock.

Jo-Anne Velin
Jo-Anne Velin
Jo-Anne Velin is a Canadian journalist & film director living in Europe, creating long-form documentary films with a very special focus on authentic sound.
Published date: May 6, 2019

«Woodstock Music & Art Fair presents An Aquarius Exhibition – 3 Days of Peace & Music» was the original name of what was to happen in upstate New York, August 15-18, 1969. The more one learns about the chaos and invention that became the Woodstock of common legend, the more astonishing, it seems, that it could have happened at all.

Today it seems amazing that 400,000 people would amass as they did on Max Yasgur’s dairy farm in upstate New York, without violence: there had been enough incidents elsewhere in the country for the risk to feel real. An incalculable amount of cannabis (and LSD) had something to do with keeping it peaceful, perhaps, but the energy drawing people together went deeper.

Today it seems amazing that 400,000 people would amass as they did without violence.

The idea to make an open-air music and crafts fair began to germinate three years before Woodstock happened. John P. Roberts and Joel Rosenman, both in their mid-20s, set out to make a buck. They had met playing golf; Roberts had inherited half a million dollars. Word got out across the country through underground newspapers and magazines.

There are now two Woodstock films, one from 1970 and one that will be launched by the American television broadcaster, PBS, in 2019 to celebrate the festival’s 50th anniversary. More than 25 years after the first film won big at the Oscars, film critic Roger Ebert wrote that Michael Wadleigh’s original Woodstock, a phenomenal documentary made out of 120 miles of film shot with 16 cameras and cut by seven editors, «created the idea of ‘Woodstock Nation’, which existed for three days and was absorbed into American myth.» The music alone filled a six-sided album that went gold a couple of weeks after it was released.

The new Woodstock (2019), directed by Barak Goodman, has a different spirit all together. It was made for the historical slot on PBS television, ‘American Experience,’ and hyped last year that it would be about the people who attended the festival, instead of mostly the performances. So what have we got now? Mostly voices from «now», and film archive from «then» laid out chronologically.

Woodstock. Director: Barak Goodman

The film is loaded with shots wandering through the crowds, and on the peripheries where people found, made and shared food, and with old photographs of some of the people we hear as their much older selves, but who are portrayed only as they were then: kids and young adults. The director doesn’t want to leave the historical groove, but the words can be too didactic sometimes. We learn, but where is the emotion?

Turbulent times when love was the only answer

The new Woodstock is made from a lot of different voices, all off-camera, and often of the men who managed the event. They describe how the festival grew until no one could contain it anymore; other men talk about the war and the Draft; a few women describe what Woodstock meant for them. It’s hard to keep straight who is saying what, but in the end, knowing doesn’t really matter: these voices represent thousands more.

The film is loaded with shots wandering through the crowds.

At minute 12 someone says, «The one thing that affected everybody was the war in Vietnam.» A man describes how frightened he was of the Draft as a 17 year-old; a clip from television reports one week’s death and missing-in-action numbers and in another, reporter Dan Rather announces Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, then comes Bobby Kennedy’s murder.

Woodstock music fest 1969 billboard

Themes like the violence that cleaved class and colour then, the dramatic effect of the Pill on women’s sexual choices, and general rebellion against the Establishment, pass through this film like a bird coasting on air currents.

But for three days then, love was the answer: 400,000 lived on a trampled field and blankets, jamming the roads, and huddled around campfires at night. And then the food ran out and the storm came and communities around the field fed ‘the kids’ whatever they had. Farmer Max Yasgur’s conservatism, it seems, included respecting freedom of expression for people he didn’t necessarily agree with. He helped feed them as well; he was involved and supportive.

«The one thing that affected everybody was the war in Vietnam.»

Looking back over 50 years, it feels naive, and beautifully so, that 400,000 people expected music would connect them and love would shelter and provide for them. Some lived day to day without anyone who understood them, but here they found community: attendee Laureen Starobin said that «I could escape into my music… It was such a comfort to me.» Woodstock brought her together with people like herself.

Maybe it was Aquarian cosmic energy after all, that protected the festival from violence then, but Woodstock lives on because the film crews and recording professionals on site created the material that built Woodstock’s myth later. Their archive is a precious store!


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Modern Times Review