Sunday, April 15, 2012

Woodstock (Michael Wadleigh)

"3 days of peace and music". This has been the phrase that has been most associated with the monumental music event that is "Woodstock". But this documentary film itself, aside from being able to highlight just that in an epic (it runs for a staggering 3 hours and 50 minutes) and almost hypnotic kind of way, is a definitive benchmark in documentary filmmaking.

Today, it can be particularly debated that what happened in "Woodstock" is but a niche manifestation of an obscure state of mind not representative of what America really was at the time. There's also some who may argue that the far out, violence-free miracle that has occurred at that vast dairy farm at Bethel, New York is merely a temporary illusion of transcendental happiness completely demystified by what happened at Altamont Speedway (see "Gimme Shelter") when the Rolling Stones held a free concert there less than four months later; a tragically sobering event (one homicide and 3 other deaths) that is commonly regarded as the "Anti-Woodstock".

But still, after more than 40 years since the figurative birth of this 'hippie' counterculture generation at this legendary music festival, "Woodstock" the documentary is truly potent and also often times genuinely powerful and moving in its truly flawless documentation of both a fragment of social history and a particular highlight not just of pot-induced rock and roll but the unparalleled sway of music in general.

Director Michael Wadleigh, supported in editing and directing by the likes of Thelma Schoonmaker and Martin Scorsese (both were then-unknown), who painstakingly covered the whole festival with an unbounded passion and goal to cinematically present and capture "Woodstock" not simply as one of those rock concert documentaries that usually come and go but as a simulated experience of what it could have been to walk through mud and smoke some weed at the time, has pulled off the nearly impossible by way of how he has put this massive Aquarian assemblage into a cohesive cinematic whole without sacrificing the minute details of almost everything that has happened there. So, although "Woodstock" the documentary is a solidly realistic time capsule of a film that has finely preserved the era itself, it has also transformed, after all these years, into a timeless film that is as much a thing of envy for free willing, flower-minded folks today as much as it is a perfectly documented curiosity piece for present social scientists.

But aside from being limited into what it merely is (a documentary film), what this documentary can be specifically proud of aside from the very content itself is its utter display of great cinematography and skillful editing. Jumping back and forth between simple interview footages and complex multi-image coverage of every musical performances ranging from that of Richie Havens' to that of Janis Joplin's and Jimi Hendrix's (all spine-chillingly great performances, mind you) that seemingly converge in a trance-inducing visual feast, the film, as it progresses, slowly changes form from being your usual documentary feature into a full-fledged experience; from your usual cinematic collage into a kaleidoscopic wonderland.

As equally fascinating as the musical performances themselves are the slices of existence during the 3-day event that were finely captured by Wadleigh and company's ever-observant lenses with poignant subtlety, which is what makes it a documentary film that is on the league of its own. Just like the great "Gimme Shelter", "Woodstock" is also devoid of any post-production voice-overs or narrations that may simply render the whole film as thematically contrived and emotionally artificial. Instead, the film lets the whole event and all the people speak for themselves in a quasi-surrealistic presentation of images and music that has been masterfully put together to create a potent statement on its own with little to no spoken words.

Commonly branded as the definitive rock concert documentary, I think it's much more than that. For many people including myself, "Woodstock" is not just a simple music festival. Boundless in its audacity and rich in love, it is a cultural revolution that has thankfully found its place in the annals of socio-cultural history, much the same way as how this film has deservedly found where it truly belongs: in the shortlist of the most important documentary films ever made.


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