DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: Woodstock: Three Days of Peace and Music

Monday 6 July 2009

Woodstock: Three Days of Peace and Music

Woodstock: Three Days of Peace and Music (1970) dir. Michael Wadleigh


There was a feeling of uninhibited honest naturalism in "Woodstock" which would be very difficult to duplicate today. This is the experience of watching the landmark "Woodstock", the ability of Michael Wadleigh to break any sort of wall between subject and the camera. His subjects are so genuine and candid, whether they love or loath this unique concert experience, it takes just a one line or sound bite from anyone on camera to capture all the texture of this era.

This is one of the reasons why "Woodstock" is not only the greatest-ever concert film, but one of the greatest documentaries ever made - a unique experience capturing the cultural and political importance of the monumentally huge concert with all it's peace, love and rock 'n' roll texture intact.

Director Michael Wadleigh, with his army of camera and sound men, didn't have enough 16mm stock to shoot every act on the bill, not even every song played and so the filmmakers had to pick and choose the right songs. While acts like Crosby, Stills & Nash, Jimi Hendrix,The Who were some of the biggest names in rock, we find some of the most memorable performances in bands like Ten Years After, Richie Havens and Sha Na Na - artists who, in retrospect, have been defined by their Woodstock appearances.

My personal favourite has to be Santana's "Soul Sacrfice", with the scene stealer 19 year old Michael Shrieve’s legendary drumming. It features the best drum solo I've ever seen anchoring the tightest performance of the event.

On a technical level Woodstock trumps all other concert films because of its achievements in epic and spectacular visual grandeur. It was shot on 16mm and blown up to 70mm, but of course a 16mm film frame has a 1.33:1 aspect ratio and 70mm has a 2.20:1 ratio which allowed Wadleigh to experiment with some magnificent split screen effects. And has there ever been a more glorious use of this technique? Hadleigh and his editors, Thelma Schoonmacher and Martin Scorsese, explore every inch of the widescreen frame, using multiple frame sizes and aspect ratios to frame the subjects. In the opening moments it’s a cropped frame, with the left and right portions of the frame cut off as black. But once the music starts the editors fill in the space like an ever changing jigsaw puzzle of imagery, giving us the illusion of being all around the concert at once.

Each musical act seems to have it's own a unique visual design. Jimi Hendrix’s songs are shot almost exclusively with a long lens, and even occasionally changing the shutter angle for a staccato effect. The stupendous "Soul Sacrifice" song by Santana is almost all extreme wideangle lenses, upclose and personal with Carlos Santana screaming away on his guitar,

The night music has a completely different look and feel to the day music. For Sly and Family Stone, though there are a dozen performers on stage the camera is focused entirely on Sly, who glows and pops out of the black background in the bright spotlight. And the rocking Who track, "Summertime Blues", is covered well by the band with multicoloured lights separating Pete Townsend and Roger Daltry with distinct looks.

The large disconnect between the youth and middle-aged in the 1960's is wholly palpable in the verite scenes in between the concert footage. Whether the hippies appear inspiring or completely out to lunch with extreme idealism their uninhibited genuineness is all that we require from a documentary. Perhaps my favourite scene (music included) is the port-o-potty maintenance guy whom we see literally sucking out the shit from the portable toilets, then telling us that he has sons both there at Woodstock and on the front lines at Vietnam. If anything he represents bridge which connects the youth and the middle-aged. Enjoy.

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