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Woodstock: Three Days of Peace & Music (the Director's Cut)

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There is a point in life when you realize that your child’s history class covers events you remember as news. My daughter’s ‘History of the Personal Computer’ class looks like my resume. Her American history class was once ‘Current Events’ for me. This feeling slams home when I watch the DVD of ‘Woodstock’. Audiences viewing this will fall into two categories, those like me that see it as an important time in their youth, and those that will look at as musical history. In either case, you will find yourself enjoying some of the best musical performances ever recorded. This film is listed as a documentary but in actuality it is a collection of the earliest music videos, the progenitors of the music video. Those in the MTV generation take note; this is where it really began. I remember when I first got the record for this three-day festival of Peace, Love and Music. I practically wore it out. Now with the advent of the DVD format sight is added to the experience. This festival held in upstate New York in the summer of 1969 was a turning point for the hippy counter culture. Over 400,000 people gathered together on a farm to enjoy a concert. The response was far in excess of what the promoters anticipated. There was a shortage of food, water, sanitary facilities and space. Still, for such a huge crowd there was no need for police, they ad hoc city actually lived in peace. Even during the now famous thunderstorm the crowd too things in stride and peacefully enjoyed the music. When people tried to recreate this in the nineties the result was riots, burning and mayhem. This demonstrates just how special the events chronicled in this film were.

This event was a true reflection of its time. It would not have possible if not for the war in Viet Nam. The protests against America’s involvement lead to most of the music and energy captured in this documentary. This was a time of sex, drugs and rock and roll. All three are on display here in full measure. Protest songs range from the gentleness of Joan Baez to the rowdy romp of Country Joe’s ‘Fixin’ to Die Rag’. This extended cut of the film includes such classic performers as Janis Joplin and the Jefferson Airplane. Caught in this movie are perhaps the greatest musical performances of my generation. The exuberance of the Who is perfectly intercut with Ritchie Havens stopping in the middle of a set to tune his guitar. The promoters where not concerned with the pacing of the show, with how to keep the audience enthralled, the event itself took care of that. The number of performers is too vast to list here. Suffice it to say there is not a dull spot in the film.

Of course there was more to Woodstock than then music. The documentary also shows the events that took place around the music. This was a time of young people shedding their clothes to role in the mud, joints being passed around without fear of the police. A couple of children were born; probably a few more were even conceived. There is the interview with the Port-O-San man, a person with the dubious job of cleaning the portable toilets. No matter what was going on the group remained in harmony. To much of the world this was a disaster area. The Army had to use helicopters to drop food, water and blankets. To the people there it was paradise. A time never repeated in the history of this country. Many of the performers have met with tragic ends, Joplin, Hendrix dead of overdoses. This film stands as a testimony to the talent wasted by alcohol and drugs. Others still hang on. The Who recently performed in a benefit concert for the police and firefighters of New York City. Since many of these brave men and women are from my generation performances by these venerable groups permitted them to forget the recent tragedy and for a moment relive a part of this magical summer.

The director of this piece of history was Michael Wadleigh. While his career was little more than Woodstock and the horror film Wolfen, this is an important work by any standards. The role of director in a documentary is very different from a regular film. The most obvious difference is there are no retakes, no setups. They have to work with the film made as the event unfolds. Here, Wadleigh manages to capture the concert in close to chronological order, from the setup before the concert to mud laden kids walking away as Jimi Hendricks last notes fade away. Little trivia note here. The film editor and assistant director went on to some fame of his own. This person was none other than Martin Scorsese.

Although made some time ago this DVD still holds up to contemporary standards. It is anamorphic 2.35:1 with a remix of Dolby 5.1 sound. The sound will enfold you as you sit and watch. The images on the screen flash by with multiscreen splendor lost in the pan and scan version sometimes shown on cable. Many will remember these songs coming out of small speakers of our dormitory stereos. Now, we can enjoy it in full surround sound. The DVD is a flippy. You have to get up and flip the disc around about mid way through the film. Don’t hold this against the disc. There are no extras, no hidden features. Just a piece of history for some, captured memories for others.

Posted 1/10/03

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