'Woodstock: Three Days that Defined a Generation': Film Review | Tribeca 2019

Elliot Landy/The Image Works/Tribeca Film Festival
A rose-tinted version of an oft-told tale.
5/24/2019

Barak Goodman's doc returns to the most romanticized music event in history.

Is it possible that a single long weekend on an upstate New York pasture "defined a generation"? Many groups of humans linked only by being born during a given span of years have resisted such reductive labeling, but Americans who were teenagers in the late 1960s, on the whole, put up fewer objections. Barak Goodman's straightforward Woodstock: Three Days that Defined a Generation plays to this group of nostalgic Baby Boomers, offering a rosy view of the titular event that for many is synonymous with Peace & Love. Though few would argue that the three-day music festival suffers from underexposure in the historical record, this production for public TV's American Experience series serves as a fine primer for curious younger viewers and wistful oldsters alike, focusing less on the event's main attraction (the music, better represented in Michael Wadleigh's 1970 performance film) than on how an event that seemed headed toward disaster instead left attendees feeling very groovy.

Though giant outdoor music festivals weren't a Coachella-style industry in the '60s, they weren't unheard of, either. Promoters were trying to make them happen around the country, and in fact, one of the men who went on to co-produce Woodstock, Michael Lang, had already endured failure with a fest held at a racetrack. (Lang would return to a racetrack, with tragic consequences, when he participated in the infamous Altamont concert that "ended the Sixties" four months after Woodstock.) Goodman spends the doc's first short section showing how four young entrepreneurs, two business-types and two hippies, settled on the idea of holding "an Aquarian exposition" somewhere in the farmlands of New York state. Then he spends a dozen minutes explaining the '60s to us.

Once the doc gets to the immense logistical efforts behind the Woodstock concert, viewers who know mostly about the plan's failings may learn something new. More than two months before showtime, crews descended on the Wallkill, New York, site they had leased, installing electrical lines; in order to decide how many portable toilets they'd need, organizers had stood outside restrooms at sporting events with stopwatches and clipboards, collecting data. But locals were rattled by the look of the workers, and managed to outlaw the event, sending producers scrambling for a new location. Once they had it, there wasn't enough time left to finish construction work. Right before the concert's scheduled Aug. 15 opening, they realized they could only finish one of two key construction projects: the stage, without which there was no concert; or the fencing, which would allow them to charge for admission and keep freeloaders out. They chose the former, and eventually (under duress) declared the concert free to all comers. Boy, did people come.

Goodman chooses not to show any of his interviewees as they speak, instead placing their voices over snapshots of their youthful selves and footage of the young people who started flooding into the site a week early to set up camp. Producers had told locals they'd have, at most, 50,000 attendees; an estimated 400,000 actually arrived. Goodman isn't shy about documenting the problems this caused, but he always manages to find a silver lining: When an unprepared concession area ran out of food very early on, leaving a city-sized group of kids to go hungry, Goodman celebrates the local farmers who cleared out their pantries to donate food.

Amid all the logistical details of the doc, an unexpected main attraction emerges: a hippie commune dubbed the Hog Farm, led by a curly-haired jester who called himself Wavy Gravy. Brought in by organizers who'd seen how badly conventional security worked at other fests and thought an alternative might be welcome, these idealists described themselves as a "please force" (as opposed to "police force"), framing their crowd-control instructions as friendly requests. They set up a camp outside the main audience area and operated a massive free kitchen; they had their own laid-back stage for music lovers who couldn't tolerate the sea of humanity nearby; they helped those who had taken drugs that didn't agree with them. Goodman's interviews with attendees can often veer into vague cliches about how the then-teens felt they had finally found their people and believed they could change the world. It's when we're hanging out with these kazoo-playing commune-ists that this vision is most convincing.

Distributor: PBS Distribution
Director: Barak Goodman
Screenwriters: Barak Goodman, Don Kleszy
Producers: Jamila Ephron, Barak Goodman, Mark Samels
Editor: Don Kleszy
Composer: John Kusiak
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (Spotlight Documentary)

97 minutes