Mike’s Picks: ‘Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation’ and ‘Easy Living’

Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation

PBS, Documentary, $24.99 DVD, NR.
2019. 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.
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Easy Living

Kino Lorber, Comedy, $29.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Jean Arthur, Edward Arnold, Ray Milland, Luis Alberni.
1937.
Easy Living really does impress me as a movie Depression escapists would have loved for its portrayal of a humble working woman who suddenly has riches thrown into her lap.
Extras: Film historian Kat Ellinger is in for the commentary.
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Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation

DVD REVIEW:

PBS;
Documentary;
$24.99 DVD;
Not rated.

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’

Season Three of ‘Jamestown,’ Woodstock Doc and ‘NOVA: The Planets’ Among August Titles Coming to Disc and Digital From PBS

American Experience: Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation, NOVA: The Planets and the drama Jamestown, Season 3 are among the titles coming to DVD, Blu-ray and digital from PBS Distribution in August.

Due Aug. 6 on DVD and digital is American Experience: Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation. Filmmaker Barak Goodman’s documentary, which revisits the 1969 Woodstock concert for its 50th Anniversary, explores one of the most influential concerts the country has ever seen. In August 1969, half a million young people from journeyed from every corner of the country to a dairy farm in upstate New York for a concert unprecedented in scope and influence. The film examines the tumultuous decade that led to those three historic days — years that saw the nation deeply divided by Vietnam and racial, generational and sexual politics — through the voices of those who were present for the event that would become the defining moment of the counterculture revolution. Focusing on individuals that were at the concert, including concertgoers, security guards, performers and local residents, the film expands understanding of the event as not only a musical milestone, but a cultural phenomenon that served as a coda to the sixties and a harbinger of the decades to come.

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Also on tap Aug. 6 on DVD and digital is Jamestown, Season 3. From the producers of “Downton Abbey,” the dramatic series follows the lives of three women who decide to leave their dark pasts behind in England and journey across the ocean for a new life in 17th century America. In Season 3, it’s boom time in Jamestown, but success brings the scrutiny of the crown and there are few in the settlement who have nothing to hide. Relations with the Native Americans offer hope and advancement for the settlers until greed for land and a desire for power corrupts those with influence. What ensues is devastating conflict, the fallout of which will shape the New World for centuries to come. The ensemble cast includes Naomi Battrick, Sophie Rundle and Niamh Walsh as the leading female roles. The male leading roles include Max Beesley, Jason Flemyng, Stuart Martin, Kalani Queypo, Abubakar Salim and Raoul Trujillo.

Coming Aug. 27 on DVD, Blu-ray and digital is NOVA: The Planets. Narrated by Zachary Quinto (Star Trek), the series takes viewers on a 4.5 billion-year journey through the story of our solar system, brought to life in new detail revealed by the latest space missions. In five, one-hour episodes, The Planets combines CGI imagery, the latest planetary science research, and footage captured by orbiters, landers and rovers to reveal each planet like never before. Each planet has a unique landscape — from the rocky inner worlds of Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars, to the massive gas giant Jupiter to the mysterious, ringed Saturn to the cold, remote ice worlds of Uranus, Neptune and Pluto. The program explores how these extreme features reveal how our solar system formed.

Frontline: Sex Trafficking in America will be released Aug. 6 on DVD and digital. The documentary tells the stories of young women coerced into prostitution and follows one police unit that’s committed to rooting it out. In the film, award-winning director Jezza Neumann and producer Lauren Mucciolo (Poor Kids) immerse themselves with the Phoenix police unit that’s tackling child sexual exploitation, offering an inside look at the lucrative industry through unique access to a series of undercover, high-stakes police operations. They also film with young women who have escaped the trade. What’s revealed is a crime that’s both hidden in plain sight and growing — due in part to social media, where traffickers often start to groom and recruit young women and girls. With extensive and intimate access to local law enforcement, prosecutors, service providers and the women themselves, the film shines a light on the hidden reality of sex trafficking in America.

Aug. 13 comes the “NOVA” production Lost Viking Army on DVD and digital. Forty years ago, a sleepy village in the heart of England was the scene of a gruesome discovery when nearly 300 skeletons were unearthed in a mass grave. No one has been able prove who they were — until now. Bioarchaeologist Cat Jarman believes these bones are the last remains of the “Great Heathen Army,” a legendary Viking fighting force that invaded England in the 9th century and has long been lost to history. Armed with the latest scientific methods, Jarman’s team uncovers extraordinary human stories, including evidence of women warriors and a lost king reunited with his son in death. Filmmakers also use pioneering technology to hunt for the army’s lost camp.

Coming Aug. 6 on DVD and digital is State of the Art, a journey of 100,000 miles and 1,000 destinations in the search of 100 under-recognized American artists for an exhibition. The curatorial team of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Ark., crisscrossed the nation to find contemporary art happening in unexpected places: the woods of North Carolina, the deserts of Nevada, the backstreets of Pittsburgh, the foothills of Arkansas and the riverbanks of New Orleans. The art and artists found by the team led to a groundbreaking exhibition of 227 works of contemporary art, many of which might otherwise have never been seen. The program captures the personal stories of seven of the diverse artists from this extraordinary exhibit.

Also due Aug. 6 is Tom Lehrer: Live in Copenhagen. Lehrer spent his brief, yet remarkable music career writing and performing satirical songs. Biting, intelligent, and socially conscious, his songs were accessible and intimate commentaries on society and politics in the 1950s and 1960s. Originally filmed for Danish television in September 1967, the film captures a rare concert recording and features many of his best-known songs, including “I Wanna Go Back to Dixie,” “MLF Lullaby,” “We Will All Go Together When We Go,” “When You Are Old And Gray,” “I Hold Your Hand In Mine,” “Send the Marines,” “The Irish Ballad,” “The Elements,” “Smut,” “The Hunting Song,” “My Home Town,” “Who’s Next,” “Poisoning Pigeons In The Park,” “National Brotherhood Week,” “Wernher Von Braun” and “The Vatican Rag.”