As a half-million flower-children flooded into the 1969 Woodstock Music & Art Fair, turning a potentially profitable rock concert into a blissed-out free-for-all, a pragmatic voice could be heard. It came from Bill Graham, the already-legendary concert promoter who had done plenty to spread the music of the counterculture but also knew how to make a buck. Graham's idea: a simple highway checkpoint would screen out nonpaying customers.
Then, in words that would haunt him, Graham compared the youth of America to an oncoming swarm of marabunta ants. "If they want to cut 'em off, and stop them from coming, they make a ditch," he said. "They put oil in the ditch, they make a flame."
It was a hilariously un-hippie thing to say, especially at the hippie-est moment in history, and we know Graham said it because it's in "Woodstock," Michael Wadleigh's invaluable documentary. Released in 1970, "Woodstock" remains the definitive chronicle of a three-day event that would come to embody all the values of the '60s: rock music, social harmony, controlled substances, peace and love. It returns to theaters nationwide on Thursday, Aug. 15 — the date the original concert started — in a three-hour, 44-minute director's cut. This sprawling, shaggy epic captures all the magic and meaning of the event, but it also reveals the glimmers of hard reality within the myth.
It's worth mentioning that, cultural impact aside, "Woodstock" is a great piece of cinema. (It won the Oscar for best documentary and earned nominations for editing and sound.) Shot by seven cameramen, including Wadleigh, the film was distilled from at least seven hours of film to just over three. (Among the editors were Martin Scorsese and his future collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker, both also credited as assistant directors.) Wadleigh, a hitherto unknown indie filmmaker, thought big: He uses split-screens, triple-panels and mirror-imagery to turn the concert sequences into full-immersion head trips. "Woodstock" is the rare documentary to be released in 70 mm, the widescreen format usually reserved for Hollywood epics.
Away from the stage, Wadleigh's lens turns journalistic. Local townsfolk weigh in on the hippies — opinions range from "good American citizens" to "trespassers, every one of them" — and it doesn't take much for conversations to turn toward the touchy subject of Vietnam. The hippies weigh in, too, on capitalism (against), free love (for) and the American dream (difficult to define). There's much talk of Woodstock as proof that a bunch of dreamy-eyed kids could build and sustain a peaceful society. Then again, it was local law enforcement and concerned citizens who helped provide food and other supplies; in one scene, a helicopter drops little bundles of dry clothing on the rain-soaked crowd.
It's the rain that leads to widespread nudity among the crowd, part of what earned "Woodstock" its R rating. Truth be told, the film can feel a little prurient: Just a flash of female breast or buttock is enough to earn a double-take from the cameramen (and they were all men). Eventually, though, you can feel them getting into the hippie spirit. Once the novelty wears off, the bare bodies start to seem — well, just beautiful, man.
The music, of course, is what truly mesmerizes, beginning with opening act Richie Havens, who sets the tone with a rousing version of his anti-war ballad "Handsome Johnny" (co-written by the actor Louis Gossett Jr.). The bands Canned Heat and Ten Years After transform the blues into sweaty electric rock; Jefferson Airplane plays a woozy set to an early-morning crowd. The Who, always outliers in the hippie scene ("I walked through it all and felt like spitting on the lot of them," guitarist Pete Townsend would say later), come on like a punk band with a cover of Eddie Cochran's "Summertime Blues."
The film's two best musical moments come from opposite ends of the rock spectrum. One is a newly-formed Crosby, Stills & Nash performing "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes" with pure, studio-perfect harmonies; it's a heart-stopper. The other is Jimi Hendrix, the headliner, who played on the festival's final morning to a dwindling crowd. His voice isn't at its finest, but this is where Hendrix delivers his famous guitar-rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner," a stand-alone work of art drenched in politics, history and emotion. It's the payoff moment of the movie, if not the decade.
As the film closes with images of the empty, muddy, trash-strewn field, it's hard not to think of all the festivals Woodstock begat — from England's Glastonbury Festival to Denmark's Roskilde to America's Lollapalooza and Coachella and Bonnaroo, all of them trying to deliver the same combination of cultural relevance and youthful hedonism. Then there are the official sequels: Woodstock '94 (successful), Woodstock '99 (plagued by reports of violence and sexual assault) and this year's Woodstock 50 (canceled).
In a sense, that's exactly what makes "Woodstock" so important. You can't relive the event or even re-create it for future generations. But we have Wadleigh's film, and that means we'll always remember it.
"Woodstock: The Director's Cut"
WHEN|WHERE Thursday, Aug. 15 at 7 p.m. at Deer Park 16, Farmingdale Multiplex, Farmingdale 10, Westbury 12, Stony Brook 17, Ronkonkoma Cinema 9, Hampton Bays 5, Island 16 Cinema De Lux, Holtsville