Part of Issue #5 of The Highlight, our home for ambitious stories that explain our world.
To onlookers, the outset of Woodstock must have looked more like Fyre Festival than an event destined to become legend. The 1970 documentary Woodstock captures the feeling well: Hundreds of thousands of young people here are headed for a field in the middle of nowhere, for a music festival slated to feature some of the biggest names in rock. The upstate New York town is totally unprepared for their mass descent. There’s not nearly enough food or space or protection from the elements. A rainstorm will soon threaten the entire crowd with electrocution. The guys running the show seem a little bewildered and a lot out of their depth.
It’s August 15, 1969. Nixon is president. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated a year ago, a week before a new Civil Rights Act took effect. Others rioted at Stonewall less than a month before that. Young men are dying in Vietnam. A group of hippies in LA just murdered Sharon Tate and her friends.
The world is in flames, and Woodstock looks like it’s going to be a disaster.
Of course, 50 years later, we know what happened on that hill. It’s astounding. Instead of tragedy or Fyre-style cons and catastrophes, Woodstock became the bright spot in American mythologizing about that fretful, fateful summer. Bands played and young people partied peacefully. When local residents saw the scale of the event, they pulled together to provide food and medical care to those who needed it. Both in the moment and in memory, Woodstock was supposed to show that a (still mostly white) community of self-proclaimed “freaks” could form around ideals like peace and love, could trip together and huddle beneath rain tarps together and dance and pass around provisions and, as Woodstock performer Joan Baez recently put it, have a “joy festival.”
And so, the story goes, they did. It was a festival that defined a generation and that would never really be repeated. It showed something to the world. And Woodstock, which made it possible to feel as if you’d been there, is available to today’s audiences too — both to those who stream it at home on services such as Amazon or iTunes and in a one-night theatrical rerelease on August 15.
Watching Woodstock in 2019, though, you can’t help but wonder what the world learned. Today, Woodstock plays as both terrific concert documentary and a sobering object lesson about the limits of idealism.
More an experience than a film
Director Michael Wadleigh was granted access by Woodstock’s organizers to document the festival; on his filmmaking team was a young Martin Scorsese, as well as Thelma Schoonmaker, who went on to edit all of Scorsese’s movies. (The legendary documentarians Albert and David Maysles were also interested, but they went on to shoot Woodstock’s darker, ill-fated West Coast cousin, Altamont, a few months later for Gimme Shelter.)
The film that resulted — a roughly though not strictly chronological document of the much-publicized event — is an outstanding documentary, a joyful musical experience and a playful artifact of an era, even at its butt-busting length (the theatrical cut is more than three hours long, and the director’s cut nears four). It went on to win the Oscar for Best Documentary and was nominated for two more: Best Editing, rare for a documentary, and Best Sound. It earned a prestigious screening berth at Cannes. It was one of the year’s highest-grossing films and one of its most critically acclaimed. People had heard about what happened at Woodstock, and they wanted to see it for themselves.
Much of the film consists of unnarrated concert footage, and as Roger Ebert noted when he named the film to his “great movies” list in 2005, the methods that Wadleigh’s team employed were unconventional for concert documentaries at the time. Instead of using a static shot looking up at the musician on the stage, they scuttled around the stage and among the performers, intimately capturing multiple angles (and sometimes one another). You can see singers’ sweat, their flopping mops of hair and exhausted but ecstatic eyes, as if you’re at the next mic, playing the bass.
Announcements punctuate the hum of activity that fills the space between sets, imploring Wendy to call her dad at the motel, asking the crowd to be careful with the brown acid being passed around, which might not be up to snuff. One guy is asked to come to backstage right; “I understand your wife is having a baby,” a disembodied voice announces. And then the next act walks on the stage.
The film frequently employs split-screen, and sometimes even presents three images at once, during both the concert sequences and the interstitial moments, when attendees and organizers talk about why they’re there and how they’re feeling. These juxtapositions add some depth to the mostly positive vibe. While a group of lithe, naked young people soap up in a pond on the left side of the screen, the right shows a small group of middle-aged men in the town heatedly arguing about whether or not pot is good, if it makes the young people peaceful, and whether or not it was right to give the concertgoers food. “Kids are hungry, you gotta feed ’em,” one man declares. Another is livid at the idea.
Then the argument disappears, and both sides of the screen show bathing young people, talking about how beautiful the sight of all the people is. And in truth, it is beautiful. It looks like a baptism.
The overall effect, strangely but perhaps not unintentionally, is that of watching a particularly permissive tent-free revival meeting, or a massive, three-day church service. All the elements are there: The bands are the preachers, calling for peace and harmony. The organizers corral everyone and periodically make announcements. The crowd sings and dances, and passes around bottles of wine and joints and tabs of acid — a strange sort of communion. People stand with their arms raised toward the heavens, an ecstatic posture of worship. When Joan Baez gets up to sing, she finishes her set with “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” as stunning a rendition as you’d ever hear inside church walls.
And the documentary immerses viewers in the experience; watching now, with the distance of time, we are invited to recreate its spiritual fervor. Woodstock is less about Woodstock than it is Woodstock, especially at the director’s-cut length. Montages fill in the mundane moments: People trudging up and down the roads, naked babies wandering, kids talking about calling their parents on pay phones to tell them everything’s fine.
When Country Joe McDonald sings his “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag,” and everyone sings along — “One, two, three, four, what are we fighting for / Don’t ask me, I don’t give a damn; next stop is Vietnam” — the lyrics appear onscreen with a bouncing ball on top of them, inviting us to join in. The shadow of war hangs over the whole gathering, but the attendees are mostly smiling, grooving en masse, feeling, for once in their lives, as if they’re among kindred spirits.
The audiences who watch Woodstock now likely won’t be dosing with brown acid and giddily sliding down muddy hills (although I suppose anything’s possible). But the film’s exuberance is contagious. I found the concertgoers’ hope infectious, their goodwill moving.
It feels as if the earth has been spinning more quickly in the past 50 years. At Woodstock in 1969, the technology consisted of (remarkably effective) sound systems and some pay phones. There are camps and trucks tasked with feeding the crowds, impromptu yoga classes and makeshift booths selling art, but nothing is branded by Airbnb or sponsored by Dropbox or presented by some upcoming Amazon Prime show. Nobody’s trying to sell anything, and there’s nary a selfie-stick-toting influencer to be seen. To my born-in-1983 eyes, it seems almost quaint, homespun, aggressively and gleefully unpolished. And it’s definitely beautiful.
The myth of “the Woodstock Generation”
What’s wild, in writing this, is that I feel myself becoming something I cordially despise: A googly-eyed yearner, nostalgic for some rosy and mythical golden age I never lived through. (In 1969, my parents were still in elementary school.) Any concert or festival I attend now is plastered in brand sponsorships and filmed not just by a crew of documentarians, but virtually everyone in attendance, to be instantly filtered, hashtagged, and shared with the world via smartphone. While the idea of being stranded in a muddy field with a million people for three days appeals little to my introverted, moderately neurotic soul, as I watched Woodstock, I thought I might have liked to have been there.
But as the musician Lucy Dacus — whose indie-rock band boygenius was supposed to play at this summer’s now-canceled Woodstock 50 — recently wrote in the New York Times, it’s both easy and difficult for today’s young people to understand Woodstock. “The future of Woodstock rests with people who never knew it firsthand,” she wrote. “It cannot be recreated, but it can be re-examined.”
Dacus is more than a decade younger than me, but we belong to the same generation, the one born between the Reagan and Clinton administrations. All of us much-maligned millennials grew up in a very different world than the baby boomers who showed up for Woodstock, and the Generation Z kids, just starting to age into the same bracket as those festivalgoers, inhabit a culture that’s even further removed. Technology and globalization have given us a lot, but they’ve taken a lot too. Boomers got Woodstock; we get a canceled Woodstock 50, the glitzily corporate Coachella, and the botched con-job of Fyre Festival.
It’s tempting to slag on our own world and cast an eye backward, but the insistence by its participants on creating the legend of Woodstock seems a little suspect too. The Woodstock filmmakers managed to show some of the less glorious parts of the festival: crying and overwhelmed young women; farmers whose fields were trampled, their crops destroyed with little hope of reimbursement; sick and injured attendees in medical tents; people calling the place a “disaster area.” The event’s backers, we’re told, basically lost all of their money once the organizers decided to dispense with collecting tickets and let in the hordes for free.
It’s hard not to think about how little Woodstock really accomplished. A new, relentlessly self-mythologizing documentary about the festival that opened in theaters earlier this summer calls Woodstock, in its title, “Three Days That Defined a Generation.” Indeed, in the years following the festival, the notion of the “Woodstock Generation” as a moniker for the people born between 1946 and 1964 became commonplace.
But the grandiose Woodstock ideals hardly seem to have defined the Woodstock Generation — if a generation can be defined, anyway. It’s dangerous to generalize, but based on simple data, it’s difficult to imagine characterizing that same group of Americans, on the whole, as peace-loving, antiwar communitarians, filled with hope for the future, espousing the simple joys of direct activism coupled with a modest, non-acquisitive life.
The intervening decades brought quite the opposite, with the Woodstock Generation growing likely to favor protecting gun rights, fighting in wars you may believe to be morally wrong, strong border security, and racial homogeneity, while harboring doubts about climate change. And the shift culminated in the age of Donald Trump — who was 23 when Woodstock was happening but wouldn’t have been caught within 100 miles of Bethel, New York, that weekend. (Queens is just over 110 miles from Bethel.)
Every generation has its strong points and blind spots; I’m not suggesting that boomers are uniquely worse or better than other generations or, to be honest, unique at all. But watching Woodstock in 2019 certainly gives me pause, thinking about how everyone onscreen is now either 50 years older or dead and American life doesn’t seem to have gotten more peaceful or more joyful. The film only makes it clear that the event didn’t “prove” anything. Yes, Baez’s designation of Woodstock as a “joy festival” was something to remember. But from where we stand today, that joy was short-lived — a blip, rather than a trendline.
Interestingly, it’s Baez, in a recent New York Times interview, whose look back at Woodstock seems the most clear-eyed to me. She insisted to the interviewer that whatever else it was, Woodstock was no revolution. “Nobody was really thinking about the serious issues,” she said, noting that “a revolution, I would think, involves taking risks and going to jail and all that stuff that happened in the Civil Rights movement and the draft resistance.” (She knew what she was talking about; while she performed at Woodstock, her husband David Harris was in prison for resisting the draft.)
All of which is to say, Woodstock was a concert, and one at which you wanted to be seen. The corporate sponsors weren’t there, and there was free entertainment, free food, free drugs, free love. It was a place to be free. But it contained within it the seeds of the future, which should serve as a warning to everyone watching it now. No one festival or media event can define a generation, and ideals become flexible when life kicks in. Spinning our own legends can take us down a dark hole of nostalgic passivity, if we let it.
Alissa Wilkinson is Vox’s film critic. She’s been writing about film and culture since 2006.