Uh-oh, another self-congratulatory tale from the Boomer Hall of Fame. Right? The new documentary Woodstock: Three Days that Defined a Generation, arrives right on schedule, 50 years after the much-discussed “Aquarian Exposition: 3 Days of Peace and Music” (its official handle) took place August 15-18, 1969, in a field near Bethel, New York.
It was an intimate gathering. An estimated 450,000 young people drove, hitchhiked, or walked to Max Yasgur’s farm in the Catskills after hearing about it on the hippie grapevine. Such was the impact of the festival that there are certainly more than a million who claimed to have been there, with a corresponding number of first-person stories. Grassroots reporting is something that co-directors Barak Goodman and Jamila Ephron’s vastly entertaining doc — produced for PBS’ American Experience and written by Goodman and Don Kleszy — obviously takes as its mission.
Woodstock wasn’t the first large outdoor music fest — Newport and Monterey Pop, among other events, helped set the stage — but it’s the one everyone knows. Without it, no Coachella, Lollapalooza, Wattstax, BottleRock, Outside Lands, Burger Boogaloo, Isle of Wight, Day on the Green, or Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. Or Altamont. Woodstock was the big daddy.
Legends sprang up about all the acts who coulda, woulda, shoulda shown up — Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, the Rolling Stones, and the Doors are frequently cited. Thousands of music fans, many carrying tickets ($6 per day, $18 for the weekend), either gave up or were turned away in the monumental traffic jam. Burning Man-style private jet runways would have been far too establishment for this crowd. So would executive-suite tents and VIP seating. Woodstock was of the hippies, for the hippies, and by a small group of New York businessmen and big-event planners (who lost money after the fences came down).
The doc gets down to business right away with talking heads and voiceover narration on top of vintage footage of the long weekend, including some shots from Michael Wadleigh’s 1970 doc Woodstock. The new film pays homage to musical highlights — Jimi Hendrix’ “Star Spangled Banner” and Santana’s “Soul Sacrifice” are the consensus champs — but dwells more on first-person accounts of what it felt like.
America was in the middle of the Vietnam war, and most of “the kids” skinny-dipping and smoking joints were of draft age. The counterculture had some reason to believe that a massive shift in the status quo was about to happen, and that Woodstock would mark a turning point. Onscreen self-consciousness reaches epic levels. One attendee sees the fest as “a place where you could go and not feel like a misfit.” Says another: “This was ours, this was the new city, the alternative city. And it worked.” Berkeley’s Wavy Gravy and his Hog Farm “Please Force” provided its version of security, and the festival’s medical log is fascinating reading with its list of attendees’ complaints, among them: Gonorrhea, Pneumonia, Allergy, Fatigue, Gastroenteritis, Paranoia, Sunburn, and one lone Raccoon Bite.
Governor Nelson “Attica State” Rockefeller threatened to call in the National Guard to thwart the scruffy, hairy invasion, but cooler heads prevailed, and the U.S. Army even sent medical teams. Headline writers went bonkers: “Hippies Mired in Sea of Mud.” Local police were amazed at how peaceful the huge crowd turned out to be, and neighbors volunteered food when concessions ran out. In the wake of the Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy assassinations, Woodstock seemed like a refuge. Festival survivor Jon Jaboolian sums up the apprehensive mood thusly: “This is what we do. As soon as somebody tries to speak out, and they’re too forceful, this big machine, whatever the hell it is, is gonna shut ’em up.” The peacefully defiant festival was one of the key cultural events in American history. Woodstock: Three Days that Defined a Generation does it justice.
Director Barak Goodman will discuss his film with author Joel Makower and activist Paul George after the May 31, 7:30 p.m. screening at the California Theatre in Berkeley. The Q&A will be moderated by David Gans.