Documentary Review – “Woodstock: Three Days that Defined a Generation” on PBS’s “American Experience”

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Your first thought is, “That could never happen today, the country’s too polarized,”and then a montage showing how violently divided America was back then makes you wonder.

Watching “Woodstock: Three Days that Defined a Generation” the weekend after another blast of American mass shootings is the ultimate disconnect. How DID they do that without cops, metal detectors, without some hippie-hating gun-nut goaded into shooting the place up?

You remember the music. But no other film has ever immersed itself in the logistical disaster turned into humanitarian miracle that this seminal event was.

And it’s taken 50 years, but perhaps the culture is ready to move beyond grinning at the event’s court jester Wavy Gravy (Hugh Romney), and look at him as the hero of Woodstock, its patron saint, the embodiment of what separated it and every other major outdoor concert of its era, especially Altamont.

This PBS film, airing Monday night, does not displace Michael Wadleigh’s 1970 Oscar-winning classic of the genre, it complements it — provides context, treats it as the ancient history it now is.

“Three Days” is much more about an era, of “The Generation Gap,” the Vietnam War, protests and assassinations. It dwells on the backstage life, the grand moments of humanity displayed by concertgoers, concert promoters, conservative townsfolk and New York’s hippie-hating Republican oligarch of a governor.

It’s an oral history, with plenty of archival footage (Wadleigh’s crew included young Martin Scorsese, and shot MILES of film) and period TV interviews underscored by the key team that made the show happen, a few who performed and legions of those who went, “pilgrims, on a pilgrimage” — some identified, others not — their voices painting an aural memory of a signal event in their young lives.

One thinks of Henry’s V’s “St. Crispin’s Day” speech from Shakespeare, of those of us who didn’t get to go holding “their manhoods cheap” whenever one of the chosen few who did speaks of Woodstock.

The word that sticks out, underlined and circled in my notes from watching the movie, is “LOGISTICS.” The footage assembled by PBS co-directors Barack Goodman and Jamila Ephron captures an unfolding disaster, where “everything that could possibly go wrong was happening,” from tiny, reactionary Wallkill, N.Y. pulling approval for the show at the last minute to the losing race to prep a site in bucolic Bethel, New York for the coming onslaught.

You may tear up, as I did, at a first glimpse of that “natural amphitheater” on Max Yasgur’s dairy farm. But a tidal wave of OSHA violations are here for us to marvel over, frantic crews building a stage, taking every safety shortcut imaginable as they do, giving up on building a fence so that the promoters could collect tickets and at least break even on the financial debacle they were presiding over.

The greatest traffic jam in history, rain turning an unhoused city of 400-450,000 into a mud bowl, running out of food, medical supplies — the drugs, the nudity — all footnotes in Wadleigh’s documentary that step front and center in “Three Days that Defined a Generation.”

The music has become a cultural cliche, so much so that mere samples of Richie Havens, Joan Baez, Crosby, Stills and Nash and Joe Cocker are enough to conjure up what we remember or have heard about the show over the past 50 years. They’re musical shorthand for “Woodstock.”

Snippets of footage capture the chaos created by the flood of people and everything that goes wrong and most-famous-promoter (one of four) Michael Lang’s sweet-spirited but out of his depth responses. A glimpse of the original super-promoter Bill Graham showing up, as a guest, and laying down the law about what was needed, on the spot, reminds us of what a near-disaster this all was.

“Helicopters!”

And then there’s Wavy Gravy and his merry, enterprising Hog Farm commune, the police force that regarded itself as a “please force,” as in “Please, would you do this,” please would you help with that. What Baby Boomers came to call “The Spirit of Woodstock” is embodied by this goofball’s canny grasp of the situation and what was necessary to keep things cool and mellow.

Drug trips by the tens of thousands were triaged at Hog Farm’s backstage encampment, holding hands with kids lost in an LSD haze. And when those stoners came down, “See that guy coming in the tent? That was you, three hours ago, man. Go help him the way we helped you.”

I was delighted by how funny this “Woodstock” is, the hilarious ailments listed on draft notice medical exams, the boys and girls “exposed” to more nudity than they’d ever seen in the pages of “Playboy.”

I was shocked at how emotional the film, covering familiar ground with a lot of familiar footage, could be. Revel in the thrilling singing of Baez, the stunning showmanship of Sly and the Family Stone, the lightning emanating from Jimi Hendrix’s Fender Stratocaster, a beatific Grace Slick, worn out and starting a Jefferson Airplane set at dawn, beaming like a consummate professional just doing a gig — in front of 400,000+ muddy, weary and sometimes strung-out American youth.

And the film sharply underscores why this strictly subcultural event — under 30, overwhelmingly white, drug-friendly and left-leaning — has cast such a broad shadow over American history. It didn’t “define a generation” by representing all of it, but by what it brought out in those touched by it, old and young, urban and rural, leftist or rightist, growing in legend as it fades into the haze of memory.

3half-star

MPAA Rating: drug abuse, nudity

Cast: David Crosby, Richie Havens, Joan Baez, Joe Cocker, Michael Lang and Carol Green

Credits: Directed by Barak Goodman, Jamila Ephron. A PBS/”American Experience”

Running time: 1:46

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