Woodstock: Three Days of Peace and Music (1970)

Dir. Michael Wadleigh

Most of you know what this documentary is about, and if you’re interested in that time and the music, I would recommend this. I wasn’t very enthusiastic about seeing this, especially at the four hour length, so it’s an achievement that I got into this as much as I did. A deserving pick for the 1001 films book, imo.

This is the documentary about the concert at Woodstock in 1969(?) The film not only features music, but tries to capture the youth counter-culture of that time. Interviews with the residents (using older adults) of Woodstock and the young people attending the concert.

There were several things that surprised me about the film. First of all, many of the older adults interview (including the chief of police) had positive things to say about the kids, and how nice some of them were. This could partly be because of the economic activity the concert generated for the town. (Maybe town leaders urged residents to speak favorably about the young people.) The other factor could have been the director’s bias (I don’t know if he had any) in favor of the counter-culture. The film does feel like propaganda for the peace movement. Surely, bad things must have happened at the event, but you almost never see anything like this. This is one of the reasons Gimme Shelter is an important companion film to this one because it shows the dark side of the counter-culture.

I also didn’t know that the people initially had to pay for the concert, and that the fee was waived later. I wished the film explained the reason for this shift (did I miss it?) and how the promoters got away with this. In an interview, the promoters mentioned the money lost on the concert, but they didn’t explain how they were going to pay back sponsors or if the musicians were going to get paid.

The editing was also quite effective, although I found the use of split screen distracting. But for the most part this was really well-done, especially with the performances. The editing and camera angles made the performances more interesting to watch (something that was not true for me in the Gimme Shelter film.) I was concerned that the performances would be boring visually, but that was not the case at all.

Some of the performance highlights for me were Joan Baez’s rendition of “Swing Low;” Richie Haven’s performance which felt spiritual at times, especially in the second song; and Hendrix’s performance (although I thought one of his solos went a little long; btw, this section on the library copy I had was damaged, so I missed quite a bit of it); Crosby, Stills and Nash’s performance of “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” such a good song. (Some of you may be surprised to know that Sha Na Na performed there–”At the Hop,” no less.)

I haven’t watched a lot of concert films, but in terms of the direction, editing and performances, it’s not hard to believe that this is one of the best.

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