'Creating Woodstock': Film Review

Courtesy of Henry Diltz
Too little, too late.
8/14/2019

Mick Richards’ documentary assesses the entrepreneurs and industry professionals who produced the iconic 1969 music festival, which is observing its 50th anniversary this month.

There’s plenty of reassessment being directed at the late '60s this summer, as Woodstock, the Manson murders and the first lunar landing all hit their five-decade milestones. After all, 1969 wasn’t just the end of a decade, it was also the conclusion of an era when American youth first felt a generational swelling of self-identity and common values. Then the '70s saw it all muddled by the commodification of the counterculture, the downfall of Nixon’s toxic political machine and a long-overdue retreat from the war zones of Southeast Asia.

Late July’s cancellation of the Woodstock 50 commemorative concert, after months of rumors and repeated attempts to secure a suitable venue, came like the capitulation of a social movement that increasingly seems to be losing relevance. Casting an admiring backward glance nonetheless, Mick Richards’ feature documentary, painstakingly assembled from nearly three decades of research and interviews, examines the creative and logistical accomplishments achieved by Woodstock’s original founders. Although clearly a labor of love, Creating Woodstock only incrementally augments the event’s already considerable legacy, suggesting that lifelong fans, but perhaps few others, will uncover occasional revelations.

As the viability of Woodstock 50’s on-again, off-again plans grew increasingly tenuous over the course of the summer, the festival’s travails began to mirror the seemingly insurmountable obstacles that the original promoters faced in the lead-up to the Aug. 15-18, 1969, event. Musician and former industry exec Artie Kornfeld and concert promoter Michael Lang initially planned the gathering as a much smaller event to take place in the artsy enclave of Woodstock, New York. Combining resources with John Roberts, a Shakespeare-quoting heir to a consumer products dynasty, and entrepreneur Joel Rosenman, the quartet reimagined the event as a three-day fest and began searching for a concert site during the early spring of 1969. 

After locating and then losing access to two locations, the organizers were approached by Max Yasgur and his wife, Miriam, offering hundreds of acres of rolling pastureland near Bethel, New York, as a concert site. Their sprawling dairy farm lacked adequate access roads, utilities and other event infrastructure, but Rosenman recalls that “there would have been no Woodstock without Max and Miriam Yasgur.”

John Morris, hired early on as director of operations, recalls that the Woodstock Music and Art Fair was conceived as an East Coast version of the 1967 Monterey International Pop Festival, and promoted as an “Aquarian exposition” featuring “three days of peace and music.” Site preparations began only four weeks before the show date and ran chronically behind schedule until the final days of organizing. The custom-built stage was never actually finished, Morris reveals, even after the promoters sacrificed completion of a perimeter fence in the face of a labor shortage.

Although $1 million in advance tickets had been sold, without fencing in place, 50,000 fans poured onto the grounds more than a day before the show began. Eventually more than 400,000 attendees spread across a site designed to accommodate 50,000 to 100,000. and the ensuing crowd-control issues finally drove Morris onstage to memorably announce, “It’s a free concert from now on.”

As it turns out, the show itself wasn’t much better managed than the site. With most of the musicians delayed by unimaginable traffic jams, the promoters were rounding up any available talent to perform on opening day. In a brief interview, singer-songwriter Richie Havens recounts how organizers sent him onstage at 5 p.m., well ahead of his scheduled appearance time. Havens says he eventually ran through every song in his repertoire during a two-hour set, finally improvising the composition of his now-famous song “Freedom” when he inevitably ran out of material.

Richards, a television producer and documentary filmmaker who attended the concert as a teenager, is clearly arriving very late to the party, presenting barely enough new material to consistently engage viewers by now saturated with Woodstock nostalgia. Much of this familiarity originates with Woodstock, Michael Wadleigh’s definitive 1970 Oscar-winning documentary, which provides a readily recognizable portion of Creating Woodstock’s onstage footage. Although the film is rich in anecdotes and reminiscences, aside from the Havens segment, '60s icon Arlo Guthrie and Mountain singer-guitarist Leslie West are the only other musician interviews included.

Some of the film’s content also bears a distinct resemblance to D.A. Pennebaker, Chris Hegedus and Erez Laufer’s three-hour Woodstock Diary, a 1994 documentary series on the festival that also includes segments featuring Roberts, Rosenman and Lang commenting on the genesis of the production. Richards’ own interviews span decades and a variety of production formats, making editorial integration somewhat inconsistent, while often variable archival footage ranges from amateurish to acceptable.

With the recent passing of Direct Cinema proponent Pennebaker, who directed the electrifying Monterey Pop on the titular music festival, the era’s luster appears to be fading, much as it did with the end of the decade. By December 1969, the notoriously violent Altamont Speedway Free Festival, immortalized in Albert and David Maysles’ groundbreaking Gimme Shelter, had closed out a tumultuous decade and sealed 1969 in a nostalgic time capsule.

Production companies: Virtue Films Intl., Elm Entertainment
Distributor: Cinema Libre Studios
Director-writer-editor-director of photography: Mick Richards
Producers: Eric Morris, Mick Richards
Executive producers: Paul H. Barry, Ike Diogu, Kristin Nobles, Matthew Spain, Ivan Williams

111 minutes