Moving Pictures September 2009

Woodstock Nation

Revisiting the 1969 mass freak-out, and the documentary that captured it all
Barry Z. Levine/Getty Images

And did those feet in ancient time walk upon upstate New York’s mountains green? And did the fascist pigs seed the rain clouds over the festival site, causing them to unbosom upon the heads of the beautiful people? And was Jerusalem builded there, if only for 72 hours? Pretty much, apparently. No one was killed, at least not on purpose; and who knows—some scraping enlightenments may even have been attained. Peace on Earth. A different America, squatting BlackBerry-less in the mud—and smiling! Like you, perhaps, I was in diapers at the time, which means that I view the events recorded in the movie Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace and Music as through an electric fence of skepticism, generational disenchantment, blah blah. Nonetheless: what a scene. What a mind-blower.

James Parker contrasts serene footage from the 1969 festival with mayhem from the 1999 anniversary show

August marks the 40th anniversary of the Woodstock Music and Art Fair, or “Aquarian Exposition"—the famous festival/happening attended (or overwhelmed) by some 400,000 people, which took place on 600 acres of farmland in Sullivan County, New York. To celebrate, we have an expanded DVD rerelease of the original 1970 documentary, directed by Michael Wadleigh, as well as Ang Lee’s period piece Taking Woodstock and a little outbreak of books. The occasion would be as appropriately honored with a 50-mile traffic jam or an Internet crash: on every front, cultural and material, Woodstock was too much. Mass electrocution was averted only by an act of God. (Lee’s protagonist, on his way up to the stage, puts his hand on a metal stair rail and snatches it back with a hiss: thanks to an unholy marriage of rainwater and guerrilla wiring, the entire structure is live.)

The kids at Woodstock were either the first generation to taste true liberty, or the last generation able to police itself—we’re still working that one out. Wadleigh’s Woodstock begins with a kind of remote and Edenic eeriness: cool pulses of keyboard—the sound of Crosby, Stills & Nash’s “Long Time Gone”—as the camera roams the hazy pastures of Max Yasgur’s farm. We see the blameless cows, the soon-to-be-defiled meadows and lake, and then the paradise-dwellers themselves—the hippies, tanned and shirtless, chakras ablaze, starting to set the place up. In an instant, the scope of the dietary disaster that has since overtaken us is revealed. No high-fructose corn syrup in 1969, baby: the men are as lean as jaguars, the women firm-fleshed and passionate-looking. And no protein shakes, either—none of the congested muscularity of your 21st-century gym jockey.

Then night falls, and we get the first taste of the mayhem to come. Dancers, madly dancing; silhouetted druidic gestures; pale ass-cleft of hippie maiden, vibrant in the dusk. CSN’s “Wooden Ships” kicks in: “Silver people on the shoreline, let us be / Talkin’ ’bout very free and easy …” Magic!

In addition to cataloguing a mass freak-out, Woodstock stands as a monument to the spirit of ’60s documentarianism. The Maysles Brothers, Albert and David, had a bid in to make the film, but were narrowly beaten out by Wadleigh, who had dazzled the festival promoters with split-screen footage of an Aretha Franklin performance. (The brothers went on, of course, to make Woodstock’s dark twin, the Altamont movie, Gimme Shelter.) The idea of cinema verité still had a bit of buzz on it, and Wadleigh was fresh from working on Merv Griffin’s innovative out-and-about TV special, Sidewalks of New England. He and his crew were adepts in the new recording technology—the shotgun mikes, the sparkling Nagra sound equipment, and the handheld, quick-load Eclair NPR cameras that would effect the McLuhan-esque transmutation of Woodstock into Woodstock.

Once in position at the festival, they filmed everything: they filmed themselves filming, they caught the enormity upon enormity of the crowd, and they captured the touch of panic in the eyes of the performers. They came away with endless footage, 160 hours in total; the helicopters that came thumping in with musicians on board (because all the roads were choked) were also loaded with cases of raw stock for the cameras. Onstage, the cameramen scuttled and skidded around at knee height to get those fawning, swooning rock-star shots; out in the campgrounds, Wadleigh’s interviewers prodded the people with straight-man questions.

Presented by

James Parker is an Atlantic contributing editor.

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