A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 125 – Woodstock (Director’s Cut)

Woodstock – Director’s Cut – July 3rd, 2010

Our movie starts with an interview with an older man who lives nearby, talking about the festival. He says “It was too big for the world!” How true. We don’t start with the musicians, or even the music. We don’t see anyone who might have attended the festival in the first interview. We get there slowly, seeing the farmland surrounding the festival location first, and the building of the fences. A few people here, a few people there. Long hair and long whiskers. The stage half-finished while Crosby, Stills and Nash sing Long Time Coming. Watching it as we are, from the present, looking into the past with scenes of people preparing, we know what they don’t. We know what the man in the first interview knows. This was big. Bigger than big. Event of a lifetime big. Not my lifetime, of course. It’s a little under a decade before my time. The closest I can get to this time period is the music and movies like this.

I grew up listening to what is now termed “classic rock” on vinyl. My parents have a fantastic record collection and among their albums are a lot of the bands that appeared at Woodstock. Crosby, Stills and Nash, Canned Heat, Jefferson Airplane and Santana, to name a few. I’ll be honest, much as I enjoy Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, and love their segments in this, my very favorite part is the one number from Santana, followed closely by Sly and the Family Stone. Maybe it’s because I have a from-birth fondness of Santana (my mother sang one of their songs to me the first time she held me). Maybe it’s seeing Carlos Santana so young and so brilliant even then. I don’t know, but him and Sly and the Family Stone will make me dance in my seat (or out of it) every time.

But then there’s also The Who, whom I love and not just because Daltrey was in the Highlander series. He’s got this fantastic fringed shirt during his performance at Woodstock that immediately reminds me of Judas at the end of Jesus Christ Superstar. There’s Joe Cocker singing With a Little Help From my Friends, which is one of my favorite versions of this song ever. It’s frenetic and sort of desperate and pleading and beautiful. Really, that frenetic quality is present for a lot of musicians in the film. They let the music carry them along. Even the bands that seem calmer on the surface sometimes have some wild drums in the back, or a guitarist who’s really into the whole mood. It’s not just wild, it’s exultant.

The music is fantastic, but what makes this a documentary instead of simply a concert, and what made Woodstock a cultural phenomenon instead of simply a festival is everything that happened off the stage. Interviews were conducted throughout the course of the festival, both with the townspeople in the area and with the attendees. There’s plenty of footage not just of the stage but of everything else. We see the cars and the crowds. We see people milling and policemen directing traffic. We see people bathing in the streams. We get interviews with volunteers and attendees. And as the movie progresses, things get more crowded and confused, but also more exciting. The announcements being made get a little weirder and start mentioning things about the size of the crowd. It gets clear just how massive it all is.

We watch as a thunder storm sweeps through and everyone hunkers down under tarps and blankets and umbrellas and tents and plays in the mud and sings together while they wait for the rain to end. The Army sends some doctors in to help with medical needs. A young woman at an information booth talks about how she’s lost her sister in the crowd. The sister has to be in court the next morning and the young woman has her tickets home. She seems a little annoyed, but not panicked or truly upset. She’s resigned and hey, if you had to be stuck why not there? Some townspeople talk about it being a mess while other ones talk about donating food. A group of festival-goers go skinny dipping and clean up. We meet the guy cleaning the public toilets and find out one of his two sons is at the festival while the other is in Vietnam.

Given, with 500,000 people in attendance, it was going to be messy. There are certainly detractors in among the townspeople, and a few representational instances of the problems inherent in such a large crowd with inadequate supplies and no easy way out. A woman breaks down crying as she’s overwhelmed by the press of people around her. A man in town talks about the whole thing being a disgrace. Then again, the local chief of police says how upstanding all the kids are and how America should be proud of them. But the overall mood of the film, the picture it gives of the music and the people there and the three days and everything that happened there is one of hope and peace and a vision of how people can get along even in large numbers. Contrast this with the later Woodstock concerts and the mass chaos that erupted at them. Anecdotal stories from college friends involved fires and mobs fighting. Not the same sort of thing, you know?

I know someone who was there. He’s a patron at my library. He says he knows he was there but doesn’t remember any of it. My parents weren’t there. I seem to recall my mother telling me they’d gone to some other event somewhere nearby and missed it entirely. It wasn’t really their scene, even if they did love the music. Still, I can’t help but wonder what it would have been like to have that experience instead of just a documentary, albeit as wonderful a documentary as this one is. Would I have been at the pond, skinny dipping? Would I have stuck it through the rain in the mud? Or would I have panicked, confronted by huge crowds and no way home? I think it’s even odds on either direction, though I’m quite certain I’d have abstained from any drugs then (not just the brown acid) like I do now. It’s a moot point, really. This was a unique moment in time. My generation and the ones after mine just aren’t in the same mindset as the Woodstock generation(s). It is, like so many other things that make me cry, a thing whose time has passed. I can get a tantalizing taste of it through this film and the soundtrack albums and maybe some day the gigantic collector’s edition that’s got even more performance footage, and that will have to be enough.

July 3, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace & Music

July 3. 2010

Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace and Music

Today we embark on the longest movie in our entire collection – which is also one of the first DVDs I bought. I suppose I should be glad that I own the 225 minute Director’s Cut rather than the 40th anniversary version with its two hours of additional performances. (Though some time I will probably end up getting that 3 disk set, because I really want to see some of those extra bits.) I discovered this movie when it was broadcast on PBS for its fifteenth anniversary (and simulcast on the radio for those of us who wanted the music in stereo.) I taped it on my VCR and watched it over and over and over again. That would be in 1984 or 1985.

As with many people of my generation I have a fascination with this time period and this hippie movement. Of course Woodstock itself took place shortly before I was born, so there is no way I could remember this time myself. Instead I’m presented with artifacts like this movie which present the time period in a sort of idealised light. Nobody remembers Woodstock who was there, I think. But this movie of the event crafts from the music and the performances and the crowds and interviews an epic story. Who knows if there’s more than just a seed of truth to it, but it’s a beautiful story and one that people would LIKE to be true. That people could gather in celebration of music and peace and simply be together.

I can’t really offer a review of any sort, so I’m going to attempt a running commentary as we watch the movie through. Maybe in the same way that the movie tells a story through showing a series of musical performances I can write a coherent review. But probably not.

Canned Heat:

The Film Makers set the flower-power mood for the movie with a montage of carefree hippies in an idyllic setting. It’s all long flowing hair, and smiling kids dancing in a field. There’s a story to this film, like I said before. Part of the story is the before and after. The evolution of this New York farm from a peaceful field to a muddy wasteland. This is the before story.

Crosby Stills & Nash:

Through a split screen effect we are presented with images of cars arriving at the festival. More and more. This segues into a some documentary footage of interviews with the local townsfolk as the kids arrive. And keep arriving. An unstoppable tide of human flotsam fueled by chemical enhancements and goaded by the promise of a place where they will belong.

Richie Havens:

This is one of the performances that I think of when I think of this movie. Richie Havens is a man posessed by his music. All frenetic strumming and screamed vocals. I love that if you look at his guitar you cans see this huge worn pattern from his pick where it has removed the varnish from the face. It’s as though the music has taken over his arm, and I feel as though if left unchecked he’s literally play through his guitar, strumming after the strings had all snapped away across the empty box and through the wood itself.

Canned Heat:

Some great blues-inspired rock here. It’s all loud, simple, pure rock and roll. I’m pretty sure my parents had some Canned Heat albums (Along with some CSN and Country Joe and the Fish) which I liberated from their collection to listen to up in my room on my ancient record player.

Joan Baez:

Now we’re going to get political. Joan Baez dives right in with Joe Hill. Folk music has often been the tool of the proletariat. Here Joan uses a tale of people organizing to fight the “mill bosses” to stir anti-war sentiment in the crowd. Very much preaching to the converted methinks.

The Who:

Oh! The fringe! Once in a while the film makers get to indulge in a little bit of iconic imagery, and Daltry here presents them with some great film to work from. It’s a combination of the lighting, the music and his wardrobe to make for a great concert performance.

Part of what is so cool about the whole Woodstock concert is what a wide variety of performers they had on stage. There’s acts like Canned Heat performing in T-shirts, Richie Haven in his mu-mu, and now The Who with their outrageous stage costumes. The Who prove themselves to be showmen, used as they already were at this point to playing for arena sized crowds.

Sha-Na-Na:

This is a great contrast to The Who just before this. Sha-Na-Na does a show of their own with a lot of choreography and such. But I have to wonder how it read on a tiny stage from that vast, vast crowd. I’ve always felt that this routine felt like a throwback to a less revolutionary and less drug addled age. Then again, maybe they were doing it in an ironic way as a form of parody. I’m not sure.

Joe Cocker & The Grease Band:

As with Richie Havens, I feel like Joe Cocker is a man for whom the music is more than just singing. He stumbles about on stage like a man speaking in tongues. It’s a wonder to behold and a further wonder that even today he’s out there still doing this. He’s not one of those candles that burned so bright and so fast.

Country Joe & The Fish:

After some fun in the rain and mud we get to Country Joe and the Fish at last. It’s introduced as “Rock and Soul” music, and I guess I can see where it’s coming from. The keyboards certainly have a lot of soul to them, and then we get some good rock guitar and lyrics about rainbows. I enjoy the strange juxtaposition if nothing else. Sadly the perormance in the movie is quit short so there’s not much time to get a feel for how it works. My parents had a Country Joe album and I did steal and listen to it, but I can’t remember anything about it now.

Arlo Guthrie:

I actually discovered Arlo Guthrie more through his novelty songs than through his more traditional folk music. Things like the Pickle Song and of course Alice’s Resturont. As a fan of Doctor Demento show I had a love for such strangeness, so it was natural that I would enjoy this music. Of course from there I fell in love with his other music.

The film makers take advantage of Arlo’s Coming into Los Angeles to display a fair amount of illicit drug usage. I do wonder how prevalent pot and acid actually were. Certainly the documentary presents them as a major part of the festival, and perhaps they really were as omni-present as they appear to have been. Or maybe it’s just that the controversy of such things made for good film making.

Crosby, Stills & Nash:

Back to CSN in their pre-Young days. I listened to their self titles debut album ceaselessly for many months after first discovering it in my parents’ collection. I just get carried away by their harmonies. It’s great music. They sort of became the mascots of this movie, being as they are the soundtrack for the opening montage and the closing credits. So somebody else must have been really into their sound too.

Ten Years After:

This is one of my favorite tracks from the Woodstock soundtrack album. I love the frenetic pace – the insane lead guitar, and the simple repeated refrain. Many has been the time in my past that I’ve cranked this song up and danced sarcastically around my apartment. It just gets inside you, this music. It’s infectious.

Jefferson Airplane:

Ahh Jefferson Airplane. I do enjoy their kind of mellow trance music. I used to play their greatest hits CD on the VLM on my old Jaguar CD all the time. The psychedelic feedback of the VLM was a great fit for their music. Just turn off your mind and enjoy. (My absolute favorite thing ever to come out of Jefferson Airplane though are the White Levis ads they did. You have to feel a little sorry for whatever suited ad executive gave money to these guys in the hope they could tap that youth market. An almost perfect depiction of the generation gap in the 60s portrayed in a series of 15 second clips.)

John Sebastian:

More folk music now. From the very laid back frood John Sebastian this time. It’s a slower and more cerebral bit of music about the futility of attempting to overcome generation gaps.

Country Joe McDonald:

Yeay! What are we fighting for? When I was in college in the early nineties and the US got involved in the first Gulf War this song was still an anthem for peacenicks on campus. That’s a refrain with true lasting power.

Santana:

You know from here through the end of the movie the music is just pure joy from people who were gifted beyond all rational expectations with music. Music such as has no right to exist on our Earth. Listening to the amazing things that this wiry little kid can wring out of his electric guitar is astonishing. And Santana, unlike Joplin and Hendrix who round out the movie, has gone on to become a huge cultural and musical force. Who knows, maybe if they hadn’t died they too could be.

I love Santana in the modern day most for introducing me to new artists. I buy his albums because he’s Santana, but his latest works have been collaborative efforts that show him to be a sort of statesman of modern rock. Were it not for him I might not have discovered will i am or Dido. Santana is a gateway drug to a wider understanding of music across all cultural divides. And here in the Woodstock movie we see him as he was just beginning to attain the kind of popularity that would later give him the reach he has today.

Sly and the Family Stone:

The fringe returns for an encore, this time with Sly and the Family Stone. I often comment to Amanda that we don’t have enough soul music in our collection. (I may have touched on that when we reviewed Muppets From Space.) This number is a perfect example of why we need it. If those horns and that beat and that energy desn’t just get into you and make you come alive than you desperately need help.

Janis Joplin:

That infamous raspy voice is instantly recognizable anywhere. Man, the damage this woman must have done to her vocal cords every time she performed must have been unbelievable, but still I love her for it. Like Joe Cocker she’s all over the stage as she sings. Music seems to be a religious experience for her. Here she is at the peak of her game. Taken like so many great artists before her time.

Jimi Hendrix:

Speaking of which: Here’s the man acclaimed even decades later as the greatest electric guitar virtuoso of all time. It’s plain to see here that he was able to coax sounds from a guitar that it was never designed to make. That unmistakable wah-wah, and the way that he manages to play along with himself, melding base rhythm and lead guitar into one instrument, is breathtaking to behold. His guitar talks. It’s simply inhuman.

And that’s all the musical performances. The movie ends with images of the farm and the devastation left behind and more Crosby Stills & Nash. This image, of the churned up muddy fields strewn with garbage, is what always comes to mind for me when I head The Who’s Baba O’Riley. This is the Teenage Wasteland.

I’ve often thought that if I ever invented a time machine Woodstock would be one of those things I’d like to experience firsthand. I don’t know if in reality it would live up to the iconic event depicted in this film. But it might be fun to go anyhow. Lord knows nothing like it has ever taken place since, and probably never will.

July 3, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment