God, do I love this movie. Michael Wadleigh’s Woodstock is a gloriously living, breathing film, a pulsating document of one of the most remarkable moments in all of pop culture. It is, I believe, the greatest concert film ever made. It may very well be the greatest documentary ever made, as well—and even if it isn’t, I don’t know that there’s ever been a doc that is so much pure fun to watch.
Warner’s new 40th anniversary Blu-ray box is, I’m willing to bet, as good as this on-the-fly documentary is ever going to look and sound—and make no mistake, it sounds amazing. The lossless Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track is immersive and alive; in the music scenes, you really feel like you’re a part of that audience, while the track makes wonderful use of the directional capabilities during the documentary sections. In his original review, Roger Ebert noted “It gives us maybe 60 percent music and 40 per cent on the people who were there, and that is a good ratio, I think,” and I concur. The music is remarkable—spirited, fiery, energetic. But the documentary footage is downright compelling; we meet so many interesting people, and observe so many extraordinary moments.
Woodstock was edited, from 120 miles of raw footage (they shot most of the weekend, and sometimes had over a dozen cameras going), by a team headed up by a young Martin Scorsese and his future editor, the great Thelma Schoonmaker. The result, in either its original three-hour form or the newer, three-and-three-quarter hours “director’s cut”, is one of the most brilliantly edited films ever seen; they cut to the rhythms of the music, with a variety of visuals and a proximity to the players that is stunning, and the exhilarating split-screen editing may have become a cliché in the years past, but it is so effectively done here, it gobsmacks you. I’ve never been the fan of The Who that I’m probably supposed to be, but the way they cut “See Me Feel Me/Listen To You” makes you into one.
So much of the music is extraordinary, in fact; Canned Heat’s one-shot performance of “A Change is Gonna Come” is electrifying, while Crosby Stills & Nash’s “Judy Blue Eyes” suite is simply luminous. My favorite stretch of the film puts two show-stoppers back to back: the bongo pyrotechnics of Santana’s “Soul Sacrifice” and the joyous funk of Sly and the Family Stone’s “I Want To Take You Higher.” And I can’t imagine what I could say about Hendrix’s set that hasn’t been said better, elsewhere, counteless times over.
One weekend in the summer of 1969, the summer we put a man on the moon, 400,000 people came together as one, and there were no fights and no crime and no bullshit. There was a lot of sex, and a lot of drugs. But everyone kept their cool, and everyone was on the same page. You don’t have to imagine how badly something like this would go these days—just look at what happened at Woodstock 1999. Good heavens.
"Woodstock (40th Anniversary Edition)" is now available on DVD and Blu-ray.