The more the pages on the calendar change, the more some things stay the same. While watching Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace & Music Director’s Cut, I can’t help but think of the bonding experience that comes about at multi-day music festivals. Through a combination of surviving the elements and formulating new friendships due to close proximity and the opportunity to act humane without dealing with the daily rat race of life, it’s possible that the only real difference between then and now is that a certain innocence and naivety ruled the days in 1969, while cynicism and a knowingness of how the system works is more prevalent in today’s world of massive commercialism.
The mesmerizing Oscar-winning documentary mimics the original festival in its combination of good fortune and challenges to the Hollywood structure in order to create something uniquely by and for a younger generation. It perfectly chronicles the numerous storylines taking place during those mid-August days in Bethel, New York. The run up to the festival attracts equal importance to a backstage discussion with Joan Baez about her incarcerated husband, as does a session of Kundalini Yoga, a post-rainstorm drum circle and mudslide, interviews with local townsfolk, the legendary live performances, and much more. Each segment becomes one of an ongoing series of chapters meant to represent the festival experience, and it’s no wonder that this very thorough film has enabled so many people to feel as though they too were among the 500,000 in attendance. Director Michael Wadleigh produced a celluloid vision bursting with excitement, energy, and a sense of overstimulation that captured the spirit of the Aquarian Exposition. Just as the musicians from that period were becoming adventurous with what was possible in the studio, Wadleigh was doing the same in a cinematic manner. Through the use of a split screen displaying different camera angles of the same scene, Wadleigh was able to match the volume-drenched power of The Who, the blues-on-speed frenzy displayed by Ten Years After, and the celebratory eruptions inspired by Santana and Sly and the Family Stone. And with more than 350,000 feet of film exposed, Wadleigh’s approach allowed storylines to unfold without jarring edits and cuts, which would only cause the film to lose momentum.
Because it works so well in its letterboxed format, it’s a travesty to find the film shown in full frame when broadcast on television. You don’t have that problem here, since the two-DVD version and Ultimate Collector’s Edition (UCE) are in widescreen. You have nearly four hours of content in the UCE Director’s Cut, as well as interviews with the creators behind the film, producer Michael Lang, recording engineer Eddie Kramer, and Hugh Hefner (?!?!?), plus another disc loaded with two extra hours of performances that didn’t make it to the final version. Besides bonus cuts by Joe Cocker, Jefferson Airplane, The Who, and Canned Heat, there’s a 40-minute “Turn On Your Love Light” by the Grateful Dead that finally sees the light of day. While it’s not their penultimate version of the song, just the opportunity to see Pigpen interacting with the rest of the band in one of those patented blues workouts puts an exclamation point on this cinematic piece of history. Woodstock still hovers above any other concert film and makes a very strong case as one of the best documentaries ever made.