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Review: Latest ‘Woodstock’ documentary drowns out music with vintage voice-overs – San Francisco Chronicle


The crowd during the Woodstock festival included people sitting on the sound tower, shown in the new film “Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation.” Photo: Elliott Landy , The Image Works

If you are looking for music in the new documentary “Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation,” you are going to be sadly disappointed. This conventional PBS-style piece intends to deliver the story behind the event without much more than the slightest nod to the music, which is shunted to the side in this telling of the already oft-told story.

Exclusively using vintage footage, the film rejects talking heads in favor of voice-overs drawn from an oral history of participants, attendees and organizers done many years ago. Of course, much of the footage comes from the original 1970 film “Woodstock” by director Michael Wadleigh, footage that has already been sliced and diced from one end to the other in various home video versions over the past 50 years.

That original epic wide-screen Hollywood production handled the music brilliantly the first time around — from the Who’s “Tommy” to Sly and the Family Stone taking everyone “Higher,” from Alvin Lee and Ten Years After’s frenetic “I’m Going Home” to Jimi Hendrix’s elegiac rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Martin Scorsese served as an assistant director on the original 18-camera shoot.

In “Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation,” the music takes a back seat to the retelling of the concert itself, which is something like reviewing the process of publishing a book without discussing what the book is about. The movie doesn’t even get to the opening moments of the show until halfway through the 90-minute film. Once there they dribble little pieces of Joan Baez singing “Joe Hill,” Santana playing “Soul Sacrifice,” Joe Cocker doing “With a Little Help From My Friends,” without ever once allowing more than a glimpse of the massive glory, the sheer power and raw beauty of the historic performances that entranced the audience of a half million on that hillside in upstate New York.

Director Barak Goodman never lets the music breathe, even slapping narration over Hendrix’s masterful version of the national anthem, one of the great political statements in rock history. If the filmmakers had trusted the music and not suffocated it with voice-overs and quick cuts, they would have been able to pump life into what otherwise turned out to be a relatively pedestrian, tame tale with nothing new imparted.

A photo from the Woodstock festival, in “Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation.” Photo: Doug Lenier , Museum at Bethel Woods

The first half of the documentary is all context. Scenes of Vietnam War protests in the streets and draft card burnings set the stage for the youth movement that produced this burgeoning counterculture that the rest of the world discovered in the wake of Woodstock. One smart-ass said some time ago that we went to Woodstock a tribe and came back a market.

The organizers of the concert unselfconsciously recount their ambition and innocence without offering much reflection on their actions. While the dark side of the enterprise is hinted at — Gov. Nelson Rockefeller considering sending in the National Guard, the folly of much of the planning that caused the festival site to be moved, the disastrous handling of food and supplies — for the most part, the film takes the standard viewpoint that it was three days of peace, love and music. “It was really beautiful,” concert attendees tell us, not once but twice, to make sure the point gets made.

Although most of these 50-year commemorations have so far not quite proved to be the marketing opportunities some hoped for, the silver anniversary of this landmark weekend in the history of our lifetimes — an event that “defined a generation,” the film’s subtitle claims — will not pass unnoticed. One of the original producers, Michael Lang, is trying to loft another festival this August in Watkins Glen, N.Y. He announced an ambitious, sprawling program of performers from Santana to Miley Cyrus, but his original backers dropped out, and whether the concert ever takes place remains to be seen.

Rhino Records will be releasing a massive 38-CD, $800 box set containing recordings of every note of music played on that stage over those three days; an economy 10-CD version will also be available.

Joining the fray, PBS and “American Experience,” producers of this new Woodstock documentary who usually don’t release their work theatrically, have made a movie smaller than its subject, a perfect fit for home viewing, its inevitable destination, but hardly the scale of CinemaScope theater screens.

L“Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation”: Documentary. Directed by Barak Goodman. Theaters and showtimes. (Not rated. 106 minutes.)

  • Joel Selvin

    Joel Selvin Joel Selvin is the former Chronicle pop music critic.

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