Directed by Michael Wadleigh. March 1970, USA. Rated R: 224 min.
The 11th Annual Roger Ebert Film Festival kicked off with a psychedelic bang Wednesday night with Michael Wadleigh's Woodstock (1970), the milestone documentary on the world’s most famous concert festival. The sweet, familiar mixture of popcorn and old ladies' perfume smacked me in the face as I rushed into the Virginia fifteen minutes before showtime. After managing to find a seat toward the very back of the floor seating — not so bad since every seat is a great seat due to the immense size of the screen — I met some nice folks from St. Charles, IL (one who claimed to have made the trip for all eleven Ebertfests) and settled in for the feature.
Just as I began speculating on who’d be the special guest alluded to in the program, Chaz Ebert (Roger’s wife and Ebertfest MC) walked onstage to welcome everyone. And then came the moment the audience has been awaiting for years: the return of Roger!
Unable to speak due to his thyroid cancer treatment, Ebert addressed his beloved audience via the TextEdit program on his black Apple laptop. I’m not sure if it was the awkward silences in between sentences or the goofy British accent of the voice Ebert chose, but Wadleigh (also onstage) made the obligatory Stephen Hawking joke.
With that out of the way, the red curtains parted, and the 225-minute director’s cut (edited down from 175 hours of raw footage by a giant post-production team including Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker) began with interviews of townspeople and festival organizers preparing for the massive event.
Everything about Woodstock is on a grand scale: the legendary bands and artists (Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Crosby Stills and Nash, Carlos Santana, Joe Cocker and many, many more); the writhing half-million-people crowd of hippies, dreamers and “freaks” (their word, not mine); the nearly four-hour run time (cut in two by a half-hour intermission); the variety of footage and shooting style (ranging the gamut from triple-split-screen band close-ups to helicopter crowd shots to cinéma vérité vignettes of mud-caked youth). The film does everything it can to submerge you utterly in the experience. By the end, I almost felt as if I were right there in upstate New York, skinny-dipping in between sessions of rocking out and taking cover during a thunderstorm.
As Ebert writes, “ . . . it’s not simply a music movie. It’s a documentary about the society that formed itself briefly at Woodstock before moving on, showing how the musicians sang to it, the hog farm commune fed it and the Port-O-San man provided it with toilet facilities.”
Speaking of which, my only real complaint about the experience as a whole is toward the many restless seniors in the audience who, around the two-hour mark, started talking constantly and took forever to step over people on the way to the restroom. It was pretty odd sitting amongst such a dressed-up crowd with the lame tendency to laugh nervously every time someone onscreen got naked or spoke frankly about doing drugs. Surely they had some idea what they were in for; the movie’s about 1960s counterculture! And there was the incessant applause after every friggin song, as if the ghost of Jimi Hendrix were in attendance to accept their praise.
But I digress.
Following the screening, Chaz Ebert awarded Golden Thumb trophies to Wadleigh, Warner Brothers Representative Ronnie Sass, Associate Producer Dave Bell, and — the surprise guest — Jocko Marcellino from Sha Na Na, the next-to-last Woodstock act. Film scholar and professor David Bordwell (an Ebertfest regular) joined the group for a Q&A session.
It took months of around-the-clock work to establish a final cut and sync up the sound, with “Warner Brothers breathing down our neck,” Bell said.
“This is the film that almost never got made,” he said. The whole movie project was not even organized until the Saturday before Woodstock began on a Friday.
The crew used the latest in recording technology to make split-screen playback possible, Wadleigh said. They attempted at the same time to establish a structural narrative concept akin to the Canterbury Tales, combining many characters’ unique point-of-views to weave one fascinating epic.
Besides discussing the movie itself, the filmmakers spoke on problems with commercial cinema and the environment.
When a 21-year-old college student in the audience asked the guests what they thought this generation could do to spark a social movement similar to the 60s, Bell first congratulated Generation Y for helping to elect President Obama.
“We have a chance now to embody the ideas in this film.”
Bell also suggested that the young folks of today do some research in the countryside and put together their own version of 3 Days of Peace and Music. I’m assuming he’s not counting the heavily corporate-sponsored festivals like Lollapalooza, Coachella and Bonnaroo as Woodstock equivalents.
Wadleigh warned that conserving the earth’s finite resources will require starting a movement that doesn’t yet exist.
“Will fucking human beings sustain?”
I understand the sentiment, but has he been living under a rock the last few years? If all the green campaigns underway are not enough to qualify environmentalism as a full-fledged “movement,” it’s undoubtedly entered the national consciousness nonetheless.
In total, I spent about six hours at the Virginia Theatre. Though I’m not going to make any hackneyed claims about Woodstock changing my life, the sheer “bigness” of everything about tonight taught me a lot about that ecstatic moment in American history in a way that a book or class lecture could not. This is one of those movies that reminded me why I love movies (as do most all of Ebert’s annual picks), and I have to say, I’m pretty damn excited about this weekend.
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