Director Michael Wadleigh’s famous documentary about what was most likely the defining cultural moment of the hippie era (especially if you pair it with Altamont as bookends that demonstrate why that era ended) is one of those movies I’ve seen many times in my life, and each time I return to it, it’s a different movie. Literally, on occasion, since this is the director’s cut, which is not the same film I grew up watching. My first reaction this time had to do more with the overwhelming irony of owning this beautifully-packaged 40th anniversary BluRay high-def transfer of an event that pretty much flew in the face of the very idea of commercialism. That’s no slam, by the way. I know that Woodstock has long since become a brand name, a commodity. And Warner Bros. has done a spectacular job of transferring the film and putting together a whole package that is definitely worth owning, including a full 18 songs that have never been included in full in any previous “Woodstock” release.
Let’s say you’re not interested in ’60s rock, though. What value is there in this 40-year old concert film? It’s a question Ang Lee’s got to be asking himself after his latest movie, “Taking Woodstock,” tanked at Cannes this year. Is this just nostalgia in a box for the Baby Boomers, and does anyone else care? Should anyone else care? Is there something more to the film itself that is worthwhile?
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I’d argue that what makes “Woodstock” worth revisiting is the amazing scope of what Wadleigh and his team captured on film. Woodstock was more than a concert, although the film certainly has its fair share of great performances, like the iconic Jimi Hendrix closer or the Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young stuff. Personally, I’m partial to the Ritchie Havens set myself. What the film film documents so well is the way this concert turned into a spontaneous city, something no one had ever seen in this sort of magnitude before, a gathering of all these people all looking for something at that same moment, and finding it for three days. The interviews with the organizers and the audience and the performers backstage… that’s the meat of the movie, and that’s what I love rewatching the most.
The film was shot on 16mm originally and then blown up to 70mm for theatrical release, so there’s only so good these elements are ever going to look. Having said that, the BluRay is gorgeous. It’s a rich and careful transfer, preserving the best-case-scenario look of the original film. And the soundtrack’s been given special attention, with the result quite probably being something that sounds better than the original event did for the audience who was there live. Grooooooovy.
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