• Woodstock – 40th Anniversary

    Releasex on: June 9, 2009
    Released by: Warner Brothers
    Director: Michael Wadleigh
    Writer: N/A
    Year: 1970
    Cast: A few good bands and thousands of dirty, smelly hippies.

    The Movie:

    Woodstock ,the film that would take home the Academy Award in 1970 for Best Documentary Picture, has gone on to become not so much a film specifically as it’s own part of American popular culture. The almost four hour documentary captures the famous music festival of the same name which took place in the small town of Bethel in upstate New York from August 15th through 17th in 1969. It’s quite lucky, in hindsight that a camera crew showed up at all for what started off as a reasonably standard music festival. There were initially no plans to film the event, and it was only at the last minute that Michael Wadleigh (and assistant director Martin Scorsese) and his crew made the trek, and without knowing, made history.

    While the music is obviously the most important part of a feature like this, it’s not the most interesting. What makes Woodstock so fascinating isn’t that it captures a bunch of the top artists of the era in their prime but that it captures a counterculture generation at its peak. The result is a cinematic time capsule, and important document of an important event that can be enjoyed by the generations who weren’t there in hopes that maybe some of what made the event such a mammoth occasion will rub off on them. The crowds here are respectful, even if they may not necessarily look it and half of them are stoned. You don’t get the impression anyone showed up to spoil the fun (as you do at live music events from time to time), they’re there to experience the sights, the sounds, and the rest of the half a million people in attendance.

    On top of the fact that the footage captured by Wadleigh and company is terrific, the film also really makes use of some interesting techniques. Wadleigh decided to use the 16mm footage he shot for 70mm theatrical play by splitting the 70mm frame resulting in a film that is almost entirely shown in split-screen, at times even cramming three consecutive moving images onto the screen at the same time. This is important not only because it’s unique but because it lets us see the band and the audience reaction to that band at the same time and it goes a long way towards putting you there with them.

    The line up/track listing for the film is as follows:

    Richie Havens: Handsome Johnny / Freedom
    Canned Heat: A Change is Gonna Come

    Joan Baez: Joe Hill / Swing Low Sweet Chariot
    The Who: We're Not Gonna Take It / Summertime Blues
    Sha-Na-Na: At the Hop
    Joe Cocker And The Grease Band: With a Little Help from My Friends
    Country Joe And The Fish: Rock And Soul Music
    Arlo Guthrie: Coming Into Los Angeles
    Crosby, Stills, & Nash: Suite: Judy Blue Eyes
    Ten Years After: I'm Going Home
    Jefferson Airplane: Won't You Try / Uncle Sam's Blues
    John Sebastian: Younger Generation
    Country Joe McDonald: I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixing-To-Die Rag
    Santana: Soul Sacrifice
    Sly & the Family Stone: I Want to Take You Higher!
    Janis Joplin: Work Me Lord
    Jimi Hendrix: Voodoo Chile / The Star-Spangled Banner / Purple Haze

    Of course, as it is with any music festival, some performances are better than others. The footage of Janice Joplin, Joe Cocker, The Who and Jimmy Hendrix is all just as amazing as everyone says it is and it’s completely obvious why those are widely considered the highlights of the film. There is a lot more of worth to take in here though than just the traditional highlights – a very young Carlos Santana delivers some amazing guitar work while Crosby, Stills, And Nash do a fine job with one of their better songs. John Sebastian won’t likely wow you and Jefferson Airplane have sounded better but the criminally underrated Canned Heat are a lot of fun and who doesn’t love Sha-Na-Na?

    The 2.35.1 anamorphic widescreen transfer on this newly re-mastered 40th anniversary edition looks quite good considering the film’s age and the conditions under which it was shot. Warner Brothers has done a decent clean up job though they’ve not gone so far as to digitally scrub the grain off of the picture. Actual print damage can be scene only rarely and color reproduction looks nice and lifelike, very ‘earthy’ in appearance which is fitting given the fact that the movie was shot out in a big field. Detail is as strong as you’d hope for and there are no problems with edge enhancement or mpeg compression artifacts to report on.

    The only audio track provided is an English Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound track and thankfully, it’s a good one. Optional subtitles are provided in English, French, Spanish. The surround track is generally pretty impressive and has been done quite respectfully. While it would have been nice to see the original mix included, the surround track fills in the back channels nicely with ambient and crowd noise letting the vast majority of the music come at you from the front of the mix as it should. Levels are well balanced, bass response is strong but never overpowering and there are no problems with hiss or distortion worth noting. All in all, the feature sounds really good here.

    Aside from some menus and a chapter selection option, the only extra on this release is a brief tour of the museum at Bethel Woods which is really little more than a commercial.

    The Final Word:

    An improved transfer and better audio make this one worth the double dip though the three disc version (not supplied for review) has a bunch of extras that might make that release more appealing.