Dir: Michael Wadleigh, 1970
Wadleigh’s celebrated documentary about THE event that changed music, is not exactly the masterpiece that is so claimed.
At a mere three hours, Woodstock comes nowhere near the magnitude of the concert that took place in August 1969.
But that three hours is far, far too long. It’s a product of its time. What was first considered innovative and original, is now tedious and irksome.
Employing several styles of split screen and a kind of “triptych” technique, popularised by Abel Gance in his 1927 silent epic, Napoleon, Wadleigh attempts to bring the enormousness of the stage to the screen and it, often, fails. Woodstock was an event that you had to be at.
Woodstock must be seen in widescreen. The full screen VHS has an unbearable habit of only showing one screen at a time, with the following sequence protruding into view by an couple of inches. The screen then pans to the following shot, leaving several inches on either side of the two end shots before moving to the third and repeating itself.
That’s not to say that there isn’t the odd terrific performance. The Who’s set is the highlight of the film and, possibly, of the concert.
Testing the waters, the British rock gods rolled out several new songs from their album Tommy. For this, only two songs from the set was included; the latter half of the finale We’re Not Gonna Take It (See Me, Feel Me) and Summertime Blues.
Energetic and frenzied, The Who rule the concert and made mincemeat out of Jimi Hendrix and the rest. Roger Daltrey has seldom been better, screaming out “Listening to you…” with pure force and power, accompanied by Pete Townshend’s masterful playing of his Gibson SG. Their set ends with Townshend’s infamous attempt to smash his guitar up before throwing it into the audience.
Another fun highlight is “Country” Joe McDonald, performing without his band, The Fish. An acoustic solo, McDonald belts his anti-Vietnam protest song, I’m Fixin’ To Die Rag”. Not a hit in Britain, or particularly well known, the protesting hippie sings a rather fun and catchy tune that perfectly reflects the mood of America and its disillusionment with the government.
Intercut between the songs is footage of revellers baking in the sun, frolicking nude in the river and smoking pot. In short, being a hippie in sixties America with peace and free love being the dogma to abide.
However, that is where there is an issue. It’s a good documentary as a picture of “flower power” but, obviously, dated by today’s standards. The editing is no longer original or groundbreaking and, firmly, cements the film in the era that it was made.
Many of the artists that appeared didn’t stay the course and have faded into obscurity or appeal only to select music fans. Much of the music was, in fact, pretty bland and, largely, forgettable.
In all, Woodstock isn’t a good film. It’s a tough stretch to sit through and the numerous anniversary editions that are routinely rolled out, adding more and more footage, make a difficult time even harder.
Occasionally worth your time, but the rest is a drag.