Depending on your own history and experience from 1969, I suppose you could make a case that the first moon shot, the release of The Wild Bunch, the Stonewall riots, the Miracle Mets or Portnoy’s Complaint defined the applicable generation just as much (and the last one possibly even several). So, certainly, did the up-front carnage of Vietnam, which isn’t the same as the war-protest subtext of even the most famous rock concert ever. But it’s hard to look at this self-limiting but very tightly constructed “American Experience” documentary about a Friday-Saturday-Sunday that proved more wildly memorable than a Weekend at Bernie’s and not be moved.
After recommendations from plural friends and relatives on my recent trip home who had caught the recent airing of Woodstock: Three Days That a Defined a Generation on PBS, I was surprised at, taking a look, the degree to which this 98-minute thumbnail overview grabbed me. Yet never underestimate the power of a doc when filmmakers (the director here is Barak Goodman) have a trove of on-the-spot archival footage on hand. This is what made it so much easier, I think for the Amy Winehouse doc (Amy) to win the feature documentary Oscar for 2015 over the equally great Nina Simone portrait (What Happened, Miss Simone?). Apparently, nearly everyone Winehouse knew, Tony Bennett aside, was from the generational peer group that recorded everything that it and she did — from a belch to something significant — on a cellphone.
In this case, I have to believe that the Three Days filmmakers culled at least their on-the-scene material (which is most of the picture) from what director Michael Wadleigh shot for his mammoth Oscar-winning documentary Woodstock. Two of that epic’s key editors — and a lot of people don’t know this — were Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker, who were also the only ones of the editorial crew to receive additional credits as second unit director or assistant director — just so you know Wadleigh’s three-hour masterpiece was a pro job from the beginning. I read once that the editorial crew whittled down something like 120 hours of raw footage shot in an officially declared disaster area to get the three, but whatever the figures the editorial ratio was huge, and you can see why the picture got into theaters later than distributor Warner Bros. initially wanted. Of course, the subsequent “Director’s” and other cuts put a lot of excised musical sections back, and these versions are the only ones available on DVD or Blu-ray. This is regrettable because if there’s someone out there who thinks the additions improved what had been one of the fastest-moving three-hour movies ever, I’ve yet to meet him.
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ANYway. This still left a lot of non-musical footage with which to tinker, and what we see here almost has to have come from solid gold nuggets from the original cutting-room floor, given the number of times I spotted fleeting passages of footage that replicate exactly what’s seen in the Wadleigh epic. This you-are-there aspect helps shape what turns out to be not a very psychological or intellectualized look at a watershed event after 50 years, and this leaves Three Days open to some criticism. But if you want to know the step-by-step process on how an event of this magnitude got underway when its producers hadn’t a clue of what they’d gotten into, this is your baby.
We see the genesis of the project and how it was originally sold (and, on a certain level, even conceived) as a music/arts festival in Wallkill, N.Y.; you can just see the town fathers being led to expect a combination of mammoth quilt displays plus maybe kiosks selling bulk quinoa and almonds as Pentangle performed on stage. Eventually, the powers of Wallkill feared grass-kill and a lot worse, spurring a festival move to Bethel, N.Y., where politically conservative local farmer Max Yasgur eventually allowed his land to be used. Which was fine because the setting had some slope, also adjacent foliage and certainly a lot more romance than a previous default site had had (we see both, and there’s no comparison). We can see that the promoters were competent to a point but in way over their heads as they tried to calculate how much food, security, construction time (a big one) and portable toilets were needed. Off the last, the estimate was give or take enough to service every extra in D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance — times infinity.
The invaluable visuals help us feel the August chill factor when it’s the Monday before the Friday opener and we can see that the pitifully understaffed construction crews are working on, well, something that looks like a stage (and lets’s not forget the light tower, massive electrical needs and so on). As one of the voiceover parties recalls, everything was in great shape — for a concert launching in November. And to answer the question of whether anyone was really going to come to this thing (blockbuster talent or not), we see footage of a few early patrons showing up a week ahead of time to carve out a plot of grass to along with the grass in their pockets. At this point, Mrs. Yasgur noticed that the security fence wasn’t at the point where it could keep out The Little Rascals, which sent a signal to her that this might not be an un-free concert for very long.
At this point, chaos. There was time and crew to finish construction of one component, and someone figured that having a completed stage might be a good idea. Even the performers couldn’t finesse freeways that were now crowded parking lots, so the Hog Farm (already provider of food, soft-soap security and endearing spokesperson Hugh “Wavy Gravy” Romney, seen prominently in the Wadleigh film and returning here) chartered air transportation. Richie Havens was supposed to appear later in the show but arrived first, so he was shoved on stage for a partly improvised set that worked. Medics had to volunteer services (a fascinating printed rundown list of afflictions we see includes 11 rat bites). The army had to air-drop food. Gov. Nelson Rockefeller toyed with but finally didn’t send in the National Guard when he might have; this was before Kent State took some of the steam of gun-happy governors (though Rocky would have his chance almost exactly two years later at the Attica Riots). Meanwhile, the adult locals remained by and large cool.
It’s a whale of a story even beyond the saga’s two most remembered byproducts: mud and skinny-dipping (one presumably goes with the other), and we get a reprise of them here. Key participants and many attendees are interviewed but only off-camera, which is sometimes a loss; I, for one, would like to see what Hugh Romney looks like today (probably not like George). In particular, the now senior female concertgoers seem to have the same starry-eyed takeaway from the event as they might have had 50 years ago, considering how they still gush — though it is encouraging to hear women my age sounding as if they might still be into Free Love.
There is, of course, still a lot of generational self-congratulation about the way Woodstock proved that upwards of 350,000 attendees could take over a town, clog the roads so that Lassie couldn’t even wiggle in, depend on military and volunteer assistance, also a free breakfast from the Hog Farm plus community tolerance — and still think it was providing a model for a way to live. Ultimately, however, let someone else be a spoil; are you going to dissect the bad points of the most memorable weekend you ever lived, no matter what it was? And that overhead helicopter views of the crowd — the one that ended Wadleigh’s doc for one of the most exciting shots I’ve ever seen in any movie — gets a reprise here and hasn’t lost a thing in terms of imagination fodder for dreamy thoughts about life’s possibilities. With or without an appearance by Sha-Na-Na.
Mike’s Picks: ‘Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation’ and ‘Easy Living’