As a slate of musical performances, a movie, and a cultural watershed, Woodstock has always been a little overrated. Yes, it was undeniably meaningful and even symbolic that hundreds of thousands of kids co-existed peacefully on a New York farm for three days, defying predictions of mass chaos. But decades of mythmaking have made Woodstock seem like a Grand Unifying Event, when really it was the subsequent Woodstock-worship that became the unifier. The images documentarian Michael Wadleigh and his crew captured on film have practically become stock footage for any filmmaker who wants to convey the concept of “the ’60s,” to the extent that they’ve become too familiar and too loaded to be really meaningful. Only in recent years, as some of the outtakes from Woodstock have made their way onto videotapes and DVDs—and in a four-hour director’s cut first released in 1994—has it become easier to re-evaluate the whole phenomenon.
A new three-disc DVD and BD special edition of Woodstock continues that process of renewal, primarily via two hours of never-before-seen performances and “atmosphere” (including a three-song set by Creedence Clearwater Revival and one long version of “Turn On Your Love Light” by The Grateful Dead). The songs and scenes that didn’t make Woodstock’s final cut are, by and large, of a lesser quality. For example: Country Joe MacDonald comes off like a sub-coffeehouse hack when stripped of his most famous, crowd-rousing songs, while Mountain looks like just another mediocre bar band. But in a way, seeing Woodstock The Concert at its most mundane only breathes new life into the notion that this was a spontaneous happening that can never be repeated. It’s hard to plan for moments like Sly & The Family Stone’s eruptive performance; you just put the band on a bill with Canned Heat and hope for the best.
After sitting through the new footage, the actual Woodstock seems much improved. Wadleigh crafted a film with a thoughtful flow; it tells the full story of the event, from the paranoia (and eventual acceptance) of the locals to the helpful attitudes (and eventual paranoia) of the throng. Woodstock runs for more than 20 minutes before Wadleigh even gets to any of the performances, and throughout the film, he cuts away to interviews and montages that map out the scope of the mini-community formed at Woodstock, in all its glories and sadness. It’s easy to focus on how narcissistic Joan Baez looks in using her stage time to give the crowd updates on her incarcerated husband, or how pandering John Sebastian’s “Younger Generation” performance is, or how Wadleigh uses Sha Na Na’s appearance to undercut a guru’s call to a new American spirituality, or how for a film about a rock festival, Woodstock features few performances that actually rock. (Hello, Ten Years After!) But watching the movie now, it’s more rewarding to skip Joe Cocker’s contorting and Richie Havens tuning up and instead look at the kids eating crackers with honey, or practicing yoga, or getting homesick, and to think about how at that exact moment, they hadn’t yet been reduced to abstractions.
Key features: It’s a tale of two approaches for this special edition. The bonus disc—the one with the previously unseen performances—also adds more than an hour of featurettes covering nearly every aspect of the concert-planning and filmmaking. Though the barrage of three-minute-or-less segments could probably have been cut together into a more viewer-friendly single documentary, all the details about how new technologies made the film possible—and how Wadleigh squabbled with Warner Bros. over what Woodstock should be—are fascinating. (Promoter Michael Lang even explains the rationale behind Sha Na Na’s appearance.) But the main DVD’s features are limited to a five-minute promotional piece for The Museum Of Bethel Woods, complete with the scene-setting line, “It was a time of peace… and war.” It’s that kind of crap that’s been giving Woodstock a bad name for years.