Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat May 11, 2019 5:09 pm 
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It's in the textbooks as the music festival to end all, the three days in August 1969, an oasis of peace and love between the Sharen Tate murders and the violent Altamont Stones concert. Four hundred thousand kids with long hair and lots of dope on a dairy farm in New York State with Wavy Gravy's Hog Farm instead of cops, a money-making venture that turned into a huge-loss freebee for the organizers, and the most extraordinary lineup of folk and rock music of the decade. We know this. And there are many excellent records. There is the Oscar-winning three-hour 1970 Michael Wadleigh film, and the album. Albums, actually, since multiple individual artists have issued complete recordings of their performances. It would seen we do not need another film focussed on this event, remarkable though it was.

Music fans know the outline of the Woodstock story. The first location, planned as an "Aquarian exposition," ended up falling through, the stage couldn’t get built in time, the fence and ticket gate were never finished so the concert became free because there was no way to keep people out. The food ran out during the event, there wasn’t enough medical staff, the roads were blocked off with cars and people so the musicians had to be helicoptered in. And yet it was an enormous success and became an iconic event, the symbol, as the title says, of a generation, or those of that generation who identified with the peace and love and music and dope mystique Woodstock celebrated so successfully.

But do we know how it felt to be there? Studying Woodstock from the viewpoint of the stage acts, plus some statistics, as has usually been done, is applying a skewed Great Man approach to pop cultural history. The real event was the audience. What it was really like can only be answered by getting into the experience of the little guys (and gals) in that audience. Ang Lee tried the little guy approach to the festival a decade ago with his Taking Woodstock, a feature film recreation of an obscure memoir by Elliot Tiber. As I put it, this was an effort at getting inside the big event by hovering on the outskirts. But the result was rather lame, and misses the true awesomeness of the event, the excitement and sheer complexity of being in the center of it.

Here is a different approach, and a better one. This documentary, illustrated by a surprising amount of unfamiliar footage, approaches the Woodstock festival simply as a human event, and we hear from everybody: the organizers, the townspeople, the festival attendees, and the musicians. There is simply a lot of footage of the crowd, backed up with reports from people who were there (voice-overs, no talking heads). One thing is clear: they were young. There is not an old face to be seen. If anybody's over thirty it doesn't show.

Fun facts: the organizers lost five to eight hundred thousand dollars on the set-up at the original site in Wallkill, NY whose conservative population passed a law effectively outlawing it. At Max Yasgur's farm, there was not time to build both the fence and the stage. Just the fence, and they might collect tickets and fees, but go to jail for not providing a concert. Just the stage, and they'd go broke, but there would be a concert. They chose to go broke, and have a concert.

It's a combination of stillness and constant motion. In the center, the vast mass of people, they are sitting on the grass in front of the hastily-erected stage. In between the concert area and the periphery there was a "two-lane highway" of people walking back and forth that kept moving continually from Friday, August 15 till Monday, August 18, 1969. Off in the woods, there were many impromptu concessions, head shops, stands selling marijuana, handcrafts; and entertainments. (There was, by the way, no "official" festival merchandise.)

The Hog Farm commune, which was influential in setting the gentle tone of the whole event, I suspect, had its own HQ off in the woods, and they had a stage with their own concert going on. This was commune life, one attendee notes, something he'd heard about but never seen "in action." Away from the concert, the Hog Farm, with its stage and stands and collocation of teepees and yurts, was an alternate center of gravity for the festival. Wavy Gravy speaks, explaining the police force they ran was called "the please force," and he was the "please chief." "We turned it all into fun." The Hog Farm wasn't paid anything for this service; the organizers just paid for a jetliner to fly them all in from another festival out west. In a stream, were dozens of boys and girls skinny dipping; some naked, canoeing. "There was so much happening that that was almost as interesting as the music," says an attendee.

And in fact what emerges from Woodstock: Three Days is that, as mentioned, the real event is this remarkable aggregation of four hundred thousand young people so in harmony with each other, so long-haired and similarly dressed, so united against NIxon and the Vietnam War, so focused on enjoying the music but above all sharing the vibe, that peace and love and togetherness and fun prevailed. And drugs, mostly safely used. There was plenty of acid and plenty of bad trips, but no lasting damage was reported. A volunteer doctor at the festival speculates that "within a thousand feet of the stage, everybody was stoned," The air was that thick with dope. She reports one attendee's saying that just sitting still she got stoned. (Who brought in sufficient dope to accomplish this?)

Even this glowing depiction allows that, as in any community of this size, there were plenty of medical problems. We get a brief glance of a Woodstock Medical Log showing a hundred different kinds of issues, from puncture wounds of the foot to gonorrhea to anxiety states. Governor Rockefeller wanted to shut it all down, but wound up sending in military helicopters with 45 volunteer doctors. Outside, the press reported "disaster" and the Daily News headline was HIPPIES MIRED IN SEA OF MUD. They were, but it still somehow went well. Neighbors fed the audience on the day when food all ran out; their donations, cans and items from their pantries, were flown in: the sprit of togetherness and love penetrated into the vastly outnumbered local population. Wavy Gravy famously announced (it's a memorable moment already in Wadleigh's iconic film, repeated here) that what they planned was "breakfast for four hundred thousand." In some sort his Hog Farm crew seams to have actually provided that. (I don't quite believe this, but I want to - as goes for all the joys and satisfactions depicted here.)

A few performers speak of the experience. Ritchie Havens was the first to perform Friday afternoon because none of the other performers had yet been able to get in. It was scary to go first, but he grew into it. Initially nervous he'd be hit with "beer cans" for the late start, he recounts that he performed for two hours, after numerous encores creating a new song on the spot that galvanized the audience, "Freedom." Saturday night there was excitement when Sly and the Family Stone performed, and we can see the electricity penetrating into Sly as he moves above the pulsating field of folk, the bright lights flashing through his flying fringes. (It was a time of fringes: Roger Daltrey of the Who notably had them, and others.)

Sunday morning, Jefferson Airplane began performing at six a.m. They were scarcely awake and most of the audience was lying asleep. Sunday afternoon came the rainstorm, a heavy storm, and the fear that the electrical lines on stage would lead to catastrophe: the boys on the structures had to come down to avoid electrocution. Attendees dived and slid in the mud afterward like kids.

After the intense storm and the mud, the audience thinned out and attendees started going home. But there were still some great acts coming on Sunday, including Johnny Winter, Blood, Sweat and Tears, The Band, and Crosby, Stills and Nash - the latter in their first public performance. Monday, Day 4, brought Sha Na Na, Paul Butterfield, and Jimi Hendrix. An analysis of Hendrix' legendary "Star-Spangled Banner" points out its explosive, violent and revolutionary electric guitar sounds "hooked us up with Vietnam." We hear a chunk of this Hendrix anthem, still as fresh, shocking, and brilliant as the morning it was made. (This film mentions only a few of the 33 Woodstock acts listed in the Wikipedia entry, but it's not their goal to enumerate performances.)

Some report that the Woodstock experience changed their lives, made them "fully experience what 'the counter-culture' meant." In the last word, a Woodstock attendee says: "Everyone looking after one another, caring for one another...once I experienced that I made it the basis of all the rest of my life." Others must have had similar conversion experiences. But still, as John Defore says in hisHollywood Reporter review, which calls Woodstock "the most romanticized music event in history," that the idea that any three days "defined a generation," particularly just a concert no matter how well attended, has to be an exaggerated claim. What this film provides is less intense scrutiny than pap for "nostalgic Baby Boomers," "a rosy view," Defore suggest. He has a point. Still, this film does take us a little closer to an authentically remarkable collective experience, providing both basic information for the younger generation and euphoric recall for the older one.

Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation, 97 mins., by Goodman with co-director Jamila Ephron, made in conjunction with PBS, debuted at Tribeca April 28, 2019 and opens in select theaters on May 24, 2019.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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