Film Review: Woodstock (dir by Michael Wadleigh)


A few nights ago, as I watched the 1970 documentary Woodstock, I thought to myself, “Goddamn, this is a long movie…”

Just how long Woodstock is depends on which version that you watch.  The original version, which won an Oscar for Best Documentary and which was also nominated for Best Editing (the first nomination ever for the legendary Thelma Schoonmaker), had a running time of little over three hours.  The version that I watched was the “director’s cut,” which clocks in at close to four hours.  Of course, since Woodstock was shot over the course of a three-day music festival, it could have been even longer.  32 acts performed at Woodstock but only 14 of them appeared in the original version of the film.  (By including footage of Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, and Canned Heat, the director’s cut increases that number to 17.)

As for the music that does appear in the film, your reaction is going to depend on how much you like the music of the late 60s.  Jimi Hendrix, Sly and the Family Stone, and Ten Years After are all brilliant but, at the same time, you also have to deal with Joan Baez rambling about her imprisoned husband and singing perhaps the smuggest version of Swing Low Sweet Chariot ever recorded.  Watching Crosby Stills & Nash perform, I was reminded of every boring grad student that I’ve ever known while John Sebastian’s stage patter sounded almost like a parody of hippie shallowness.  I would say that Woodstock was a perfect example of why the rockers are better remembered than the folk singers, except for the fact that my favorite musical performance in the film comes from Arlo Guthrie:

That said, Woodstock really isn’t about the music.  That may sound like a strange thing to say, considering that almost every concert film made since owes a debt to Woodstock but really, the most interesting parts of the film aren’t the performances.  Instead, it’s the interviews with the people involved, not only the concertgoers themselves but also the citizens of the nearby town of Bethel, New York.  Some of the people interviewed as very positive about the sudden hippie invasion.  Quite a few others are not.  One older man seems to be more concerned with working on his car than anything else.  Like any good documentary, Woodstock provides a record of the time when it was made.  As much as I like music, I absolutely love history and, to me, that’s the main appeal of Woodstock.  Watching the film is like getting a chance to step into a time machine and experience an age that I would otherwise never get a chance to know.

Whenever I watch Woodstock, I’m always struck by the fact that I probably would not have enjoyed it as much as some of the people who attended.  I have a feeling that I’d be like that poor girl who is spotted about halfway through the film, crying about how it’s too muddy and crowded.  I always cringe a little when I see everyone bathing in the same dirty pond.  (A young Martin Scorsese worked on the film and reportedly spent the entire festival wearing an immaculate white suit.  That’s something that I would have liked to have seen.)  And yet, at the same time, I just find the documentary fascinating to watch.  I always find myself wondering what became of the people who were interviewed in the film.  How many of the hippies are still hippies and how many of them eventually ended up working on Wall Street?  Did the cranky guy working on his car even bother to see the film?  (It wouldn’t surprise me if he didn’t.  Movies, especially movies about a bunch of stoned hippies, really didn’t seem to be his thing.)  To me, questions like those are what makes a movie like this fascinating.

As an event, the original Woodstock is often cited as being the best moment of the 60s counterculture.  (30 years later, the 1999 Woodstock would be remembered as one of the worst moments in the history of both music and American popular culture.)  As a film, Woodstock is undeniably optimistic that the people who braved the rain and the mud so that they could see Joan Baez would somehow manage to build a new society.  Still, sharp-eyed viewers will note a hint of what was to come.  One of the first people interviewed in the documentary is a local shopkeeper.  As he speaks, a newspaper can be seen over his shoulder.

The headline reads: “Sharon’s Pals Balk At Probe,” a reference to the investigation into the murder of Sharon Tate by Charles Manson and his followers.  Seen today, that headline serves as a reminder that, even at the time it was occurring, the peaceful promise of the original Woodstock would be short lived.

 

TAMI Part 2: The Big T.N.T. Show (1966, directed by Larry Peerce)


In 1964, American International Pictures released the first concert film, The T.A.M.I. Show.  After the success of T.A.M.I, AIP followed up with a second concert film.  This one would be shot in front of a live audience at Los Angeles’s Moulin Rouge club on the night of November 29th, 1965.  The line-up included Ray Charles, Petula Clark, The Lovin’ Spoonful, Bo Diddley, Joan Baez, The Ronettes, Roger Miller, The Byrds, Donavon, and Ike and Tina Turner.  Phil Spector was recruited to produce the show and he brought with him a live orchestra.  Conducting the orchestra and serving as the night’s emcee was The Man From UNCLE‘s David McCallum.

Originally announced as The T.A.M.I. Show Part II, the title was briefly changed to This Could Be The Night (after a song written by Spector and Harry Nilsson and performed by The Modern Folk Quartet) until AIP finally went with The Big TNT Show, an appropriate title considering the explosive performances that were recorded that night.  The Big TNT Show also recorded the growing division between the rock and roll of the 50s and early 60s and the music of the emerging counter culture, with Ray Charles, Bo Diddley, and Ike Turner sharing the same stage as The Byrds and Donavon.

In one of the show’s best moments, Joan Baez sings You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling while Phil Spector accompanies her on piano.

Other highlights include the Byrds performing Turn, Turn, Turn,

Roger Miller performing his novelty hit King of the Road,

Petula Clark singing Downtown,

The Ronettes performing Be My Baby,

Donavon’s Universal Soldier,

and Ike and Tina Turner’s entire set.

At the end of the film, the viewers are told to “be sure to tune in for next year’s show!” but, one year later, both the world and music would be very different.  The Big TNT Show captures that one final moment before things changed forever.

Song of the Day: House of the Rising Sun (by The Animals)


The night is growing late and to close it out I’ve chosen a new “Song of the Day” and it’s an all-time blues-rock classic from the 60’s.

Even if one wasn’t a fan of rock from the 1960’s they still would recognize the biggest hit ever released by the British blues-rock band The Animals with their 1964 hit, “House of the Rising Sun”. The weren’t the first band or musicians to have sung the song. No one truly knows the origin of the song, but music luminaries such as Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly, Joan Baez and Nina Simone were just a few to have covered it. It would be The Animals version which would live on as the one best remembered.

The song doesn’t just have the soulful cadence of classic blues, but has lyrics that show’s the band’s folk rock influences. It became part of the British Invasion of the United States during the 60’s when rock bands from them to The Beatles, The Rolling Stones right up to The Yardbirds would dominate American airwaves. The Animals would cement their place amongst these giants with this single. One thing which really powered this song through the juggernaut that was The Beatles would be the powerful vocals by frontman Eric Burdon matched with the keyboard playing of Alan Price.

“House of the Rising Sun” by The Animals continues to entertain fans old and new and still one of the best songs to come out during the 1960’s.

House of the Rising Sun

There is a house in New Orleans
They call the Rising Sun
And it’s been the ruin of many a poor boy
And God I know I’m one

My mother was a tailor
She sewed my new bluejeans
My father was a gamblin’ man
Down in New Orleans

Now the only thing a gambler needs
Is a suitcase and trunk
And the only time he’s satisfied
Is when he’s on a drunk

[Organ Solo]

Oh mother tell your children
Not to do what I have done
Spend your lives in sin and misery
In the House of the Rising Sun

Well, I got one foot on the platform
The other foot on the train
I’m goin’ back to New Orleans
To wear that ball and chain

Well, there is a house in New Orleans
They call the Rising Sun
And it’s been the ruin of many a poor boy
And God I know I’m one