There are documentaries that attempt to recreate events and there are documentaries that capture moments as they take place. Woodstock provides the sense that you’ve opened a time capsule, bottling into a film an event that not only symbolized a generation, but also the human spirit that went with it.
- Director: Michael Wadleigh
- Producer: Bob Maurice
- Editors: Michael Wadleigh, Martin Scorsese, Thelma Schoonmaker, Stan Warnow,
Yeu-Bun Yee, Jere Huggins
- Cast: Various Musical Artists
With a 225-minute runtime, the director’s cut of Woodstuck lends its material an appropriate amount of time. In fact, I was hoping for more. From the standpoint of a fully engaged observer, it captures the historical, social and cultural proportion of it. The result of Michael Wadleigh’s camera is that it transports us into a fixed place and time, creating an almost tangible sense of what it would have been like to be there.
To bring alive this moment in human history, three mechanisms are used with absolute mastery; a cinema verite camera style, interviews with a wide range of participants, and the recording of live performances with high quality sound. Most of us have heard about Woodstock, but to really gain a sense of what it was like to be there, director Wadleigh’s camera navigates the physical space of the event with the curiosity of an observer who is walking around and taking it all in. While the first thing that typically comes to mind is the music, Wadleigh gives ample time to the details that help establish the event in more real and human terms. We see everything from people eating, smoking, skinny dipping, sleeping, going into porta potties, and fighting the elements. Early on, a downpour leads to people sliding around in mud, something that I always thought was intentional but instead was the type of organic activity that in many ways describes the spur of the moment energy that elevated Woodstock to become a social metaphor of its time.
Based on interviews with dozens of attendees and many of the locals, Wadleigh provides us with a panoramic sense of the lives that were directly involved. We hear from disgruntled neighbors, young free-spirits from all parts of the country, people working the event, and the performers themselves. In real life, sometimes discussing an event is just as fun to speak about afterwards as the experience itself. As such, what makes Woodstock special is that it captures real people speaking openly about an experience as they’re having it. The performances themselves are valuable in and of themselves, especially due to the fact that they cleanly recorded rock stars who would not live much long afterwards – Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix in particular. Bringing the film together is an impressive editing style that seems ahead of its time, adding a great deal of dimension to the experience of watching it through split screens and cleverly juxtaposing handheld camera work with wide establishing shots. The group of editors included a young Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker, a pair that continues to collaborate today.
Brief Words for Mr. Ebert:
In addition to all the editing and directing merits, one of the valuable elements of Woodstock stems from a camera that manages to be within the crowds while also being close to the stage and onstage itself. In total, 16 cameras were at work. This type of access is the key to providing a complete experience filled with dozens of intimate moments. Ebert’s review provides yet another level of access to this material by describing some of the most poignant moments. I am in complete agreement when Ebert claims, “Wadleigh was able to give us dozens of tiny unrehearsed moments that sum up the Woodstock feeling.” There is a layer of sociology to Ebert’s review, and as it often does, it goes beyond merely writing about the film from a production standpoint. Woodstock is rightfully referred to as one of the greatest documentaries of all time, and Ebert is correct in placing it among the greatest films ever.
Good, Bad or Great Movie: GREAT
Do you like Woodstock? Do you consider this film to be Good, Bad, or does it stand up as Great?
Next week’s review: Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring
Years ago, ScreenCrave contributor Jaime Lopez privately began tackling Roger Ebert’s “Greatest Films” list, a monolith of celluloid currently comprised of approximately 363 films (more if you count the trilogies, the Up docs and Decalogue). Lopez has set himself to put these remaining films’ “Greatness” to the test–reviewing both the movies themselves and Ebert’s response. By taking on Michael Wadleigh’s Woodstock this week, he now has 343 under his belt and less than 30 films left to go.