Back in the nineties I was a frequent visitor on the Roskilde festival. This is the largest music festival in Denmark and in that era we would typically be around 100.000 people on the festival. Sleeping in tents, walking around in mud or dust depending on the weather and partying to awesome music from the stages. We were young and this was about the greatest thing that would happen all year. One year I missed REM because I had an exam in groundwater hydrology, but I sat there at the exam already wearing my festival outfit and the bag ready next to my table so I could take the first train and catch up on the festival.
All this would not have existed had it not been for the Woodstock festival in 1969.
Woodstock is known as the mother of all music festivals, at least the groovy kind, and you would have been living under a rock if you had never heard of it. Growing up the Woodstock festival seemed legendary, almost mythical as the event referred to but rarely actually explained. Well, this movie, Woodstock, the film, does that and it does it very well.
The Woodstock documentary is four hours long and covers practically all aspects of the festival. We see the construction of the stages on the fields and people starting to trickle in. The trickle becomes a flood and suddenly there are four or five times more people than anticipated. The ticket system breaks down and the festival is now free. In small vignettes we see the festival guests lying stoned, dancing, looking for each other, scrambling to find food in what is developing into a disaster area with supplies being flown in. Locals are interviewed, some happy, some not so happy. But mostly there is a lot of music. Really a lot.
The most remarkable from a technical point of view is that there is not narration whatsoever. Sometimes there is an interviewer, or we hear the announcer from the stage call out messages, but nothing is ever explained. The music is only introduced in the very end, but while you watch you have to guess who is playing. This may seem like a drawback, but it is not. The pictures and the interviews speak for themselves. The impressionistic style gives you the feeling of being there and how many times have I not been standing in front of a stage wondering who is actually playing? Yeah, I guess I was not so clear-headed, but neither was the crowd at Woodstock.
The Woodstock documentary won and was nominated for several Academy awards and it was well deserved. Apparently, Woodstock the movie was a landmark in music filming, and I was finding the look and feel very modern. My only problem was that four hours IS a long time and so, during the music parts I would often zone out and just enjoy the music.
I am not an expert on music from the late sixties, but I did recognize a lot of the names and songs. Joe Cocker and Jimmi Hendrix got me forward in my chair and Sly and the Family Stone really had a party going. It is my impression that anybody who was somebody in music was there, on Woodstock.
From an organizational point of view Woodstock was a disaster. Too many people, too little organization, a collapsed ticketing system and insufficient food and sanitation. The financial loss of the backers has huge and the local community apparently passed laws to prevent another festival like this from ever happening again.
Yet culturally Woodstock was a landmark event, one of the largest gathering of young people ever and a defining event for the counterculture that can be felt today. I am happy that it was documented through such an excellent documentary and, incidentally, the documentary grossed a lot more at the box office than the losses suffered by the festival, so there is that.
I have gotten too old to go to Roskilde festival, but for me those were defining events in my youth, just as the Woodstock festival was for a lot of young people back in its day. The world would not have looked the same without it and this movie is the reason we can still experience it.