I like to feel as if – let’s be fair, I truly believe – that I have free will.  Rather than being a self-deluded ball of meat bounced around in a deterministic avalanche, for good or ill and in defiance of Laplace’s demon I can make my own decisions.  But sometimes, it’s best to sit back and let the universe make your decisions for you – you just have to identify when those sometimes are.

This week’s movie was precisely one of those times.  I knew several weeks in advance that I was going to have to fill in as presenter for the August 15, 2019 screening.  Just before I had to start thinking about what to show, I had watched a documentary on the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.  And so, when it came time to consider my selection, the idea of 2019 being the 50th anniversary of things that happened in 1969 was in my head.  I liked the idea of an “anniversary” showing, but the documentary I had watched was something like five hours long and really didn’t fit the bill as film per se, so it wasn’t actually in the running.  But, I thought, Woodstock was 1969, wasn’t it?  Yep, it sure was.  And they made a documentary film about that, didn’t they?  Yep, they sure did.  When exactly did Woodstock happen?

Oh, it was August 15-18, 1969?  You mean, my scheduled Cinema 1544 date is *exactly* 50 years to the day from Woodstock’s opening night?  So, yes universe, thank you for the message.  This was happening.

And so, from director Michael Wadleigh, I showed the three-hour and forty-five minute 40th anniversary director’s cut of 1970’s Woodstock.

Now, it would have been nice had any of the performances in the film been projected on our screen fifty years to the second from when they were being played live, right?  The Richie Havens set 50-year moment would have been earlier in the afternoon.  Joan Baez’s set+50 overlapped our screening, but as it would have been the last 45 minutes or so and her performance was early in the film, that was also a miss.  Except for one other performance, the remainder came later in the festival and missed overlapping our showing by 12 hours to several days.  The remaining possibility would appear to be Arlo Guthrie’s performance of Comin’ Into Los Angeles, whose 50-year moment should have come sometime between 8:55 and 9:25 PM Pacific.  Since that act was at the 1:44 mark of the film, and we started at about 7:10, that would put it at…about 8:55!  And not only that, but a bit of internet research indicates that Comin’ Into Los Angeles was in fact Guthrie’s opener, which means that we very likely overlapped!  It was almost certainly not to the second, or even to the minute, but being within a couple of minutes is honestly pretty cool.

But all that said, what about the film itself?

Bethel Ranch, presented by Soylent Green!

Well, the movie is, of course, the official record of the music festival held at Bethel, New York (some 60 miles from Woodstock New York, naturally) which attracted at least 400,000 attendees.  Reports in the film that the festival constituted the third-largest city in the world have to be dismissed as enthusiastic drug-addled hippies just saying shit (there were at least 20 U.S. cities bigger at the time, depending on the actual size of the festival), but the assertion that it constituted the second-largest city in New York might have been on point – Buffalo in 1970 had about 463,000 people, so depending on the actual number of attendees, that claim might have been accurate.

Of course, it’s hard to get an exact estimate of the crowd size because so many people without tickets showed up and ripped the fences down, making it a “free” concert.  (This also meant that the promoters of the concert took a bath until the release of the film, the revenues from which finally made the venture profitable.)

…and then he said MEXICO was going to pay for it!

The movie has about a 50-50 split of more traditional documentary footage and concert footage.  While the concert footage (more on that later) delivers about what one would expect (though somewhat out of order), the documentary footage covers the entire event, from the lead-up to the event (perhaps a bit less-planned than it ought to have been) through the construction of the stages, the helicopter rides needed to get the performers in and out, the impromptu mess halls set up to feed the crowd and the medical tents to treat all the various needs (evidently two deaths and two births, so the festival was ZPG), all the way to the aftermath of the festival (a trash-laden, muddy mess).  Of course on top of that, it has plenty of footage (and interviews) of the concertgoers, of naked hippies sliding through the mud, bathing in a pond, and doing other naked hippie things (so perhaps within a year the festival was not ZPG after all…), and even of the local townspeople, some welcoming, some pretty grumpy about the whole thing.

I’m here with world-famous trapper Jerry Curl as he discusses the fauna of upstate New York

The film is notorious for using a split-screen technique, both during the traditional documentary and the concert footage, which means that in the three hours and forty-five minutes of the film we probably got to see at least six hours’ worth of footage.  I mean sometimes we’ve got three or even four cameras going at once!

Go ask Alice when she’s ten feet tall

And here’s a picture of Grace Slick for no particular reason.  To be honest, I was watching the performance, and for the longest time I just couldn’t figure out who it was.  She looked so familiar to me, but I had already scanned through the list of performances in the film, and the only female leads I could recall were Joan Baez (not her, and Joan had already played) and Janis Joplin (definitely not Janis Joplin!)  On top of that, I didn’t recognize the song.  It was probably an hour later in the film that it finally came to me…Jefferson Airplane!

As for the music, I can’t possibly give you a run-down on all nearly four hours, so instead I’m going to pop up three highlights.

Joe Cocker’s cover of With A Little Help From My Friends is certainly one of the iconic performances of the festival.  I dare anybody to not get the chills when Cocker’s classic gravelly voice enters with “What would you do if I sang out of tune?”  Anytime I hear that, my attention is spoken for for the next seven minutes, just leave me alone and let me soak in it.

Then, of course, we’ve got Crosby, Stills, and Nash giving us their trademark harmony-driven vocal stylings in their first hit, Suite: Judy Blue Eyes.  Although it’s not in the above video, they claim that “This is the second time we’ve ever played in front of people, man, we’re scared shitless.”  That’s a bit overdramatic.  I mean, it’s the second time this particular supergroup had played in front of people, but seeing as David Crosby had spent four years as a founding member of The Byrds, Stephen Stills had been a founding member of Buffalo Springfield for its three total years of existence, and Graham Nash had been a founding member and spent five-plus years with the Hollies, it’s not like these guys were really unused to being on the stage.

And of course, how could I give a recap of the concert footage in Woodstock without mentioning Jimi Hendrix?  What you may not realize is that not only was Jimi Hendrix the last act of the festival, due to rain delays and the like, he didn’t hit the stage until 8:30 on Monday morning (at a festival that was supposed to end on Sunday night) following the stage being active all night long.  By the time Jimi was on to play his two-hour set that included his immortal version of The Star-Spangled Banner and Purple Haze, only about 30,000 attendees remained to see him.

I don’t think there are really any profound life-lessons to be learned from Woodstock the film.  400,000+ people descended on a small town in upstate New York, most of them avoided paying for their weekend’s entertainment and most of them spent some time on illegal drugs, but nobody killed anybody, there weren’t any significant fights, everybody got along in a spirit of peace and harmony and then finally went home after witnessing what nobody knew ahead of time would end up being the most legendary music festival of all time.  That’s definitely worth devoting four hours on a lazy Thursday night to.