Woodstock at Tribeca: “The Times They Are A-Changin’ ”

It was by then the early morning of August 16, 1969. After spending the night frolicking in Central Park with me mates, I scurried to my ramshackle, walkup apartment with its bathtub in the kitchen, to bundle together some necessities to head to Woodstock. Sadly, Hypnos, the god of sleep, overpowered my sensibilities, and I conked out.

My impatient pals had absconded, I missed my ride, and instead of bopping to Jefferson Airplane and Creedence Clearwater, I was forlornly traipsing to see Easy Rider at an Eastside theater very much alone on a lovely summer day. (I did, though, make it to The Isle of Wight the following year to see the Doors and Tiny Tim. A compensation of sorts.)

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A clothes-free zone in Bethel, New York. (Image source: Getty)

I thought I had stopped kicking myself over that lost weekend, but now comes the latest documentary on the landmark concert, Barak Goodman’s very thorough Woodstock: Three Days that Defined a Generation, and my loss is felt once again.

Goodman’s briskly paced take spotlights numerous performances (e.g. Joan Baez; Santana; Crosby, Stills, and Nash), while avoiding being just a collection of concert clips. The doc is far, far more, focusing on the historical and sociological contexts of the event plus the business acumen of those dreaming up the fest and trying to make it a reality against all odds. What was expected to be a dream concert attended by 50 thousand counterculture music lovers became an unwieldy, yet harmonious, three days of peace, love, and music attended by over 400,000. Some hoped this cultural unity among the young would change the world. And it did for a while.

Not in a good way argued ultraconservative pundit and supporter of “manly virtue,” Harvard professor Harvey C. Mansfield. He insisted in an essay reassessing the era that “the late sixties were a comprehensive disaster for America.” Others will argue that Woodstock and the years preceding it added one more rung to the ladder climbing towards the achievement of equality for Blacks, women, and the LGBTQI communities.

Eventually held on Max Yasgur’s 600-acre dairy farm in Bethel, New York, after half a million had already been spent on prepping another site from which the local community rescinded its permission, what led up to the festival was an unrelieved chaos. By the time the first of the 32 acts (Richie Havens) was to perform, the stage was barely completed, and the fence surrounding the venue was not. Consequently, there was no way to charge admission, so Woodstock became a free concert with the folks arriving nonstop by car and foot. One attendee noted: “It was like a field with people growing in it.” A hungry, thirsty field. Soon food and water ran out, the Porta Potties were overwhelmed as were the medical staff with a constant flow of bad trips and other medical casualties such as eleven rat bites and one raccoon nip.

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Jimi Hendrix reinvents “The Star Spangled Banner” (Keystone Press Agency/Zuma Wire via USA TODAY NETWORK)

Rabies aside, what this film does brilliantly is create an immersive experience. While there’s footage of the Vietnam War, Governors Reagan and Rockefeller ranting, plus some conservative backlash, for the most part, the doc is a joyous celebration of often high, half-naked young Americans swaying to song, sliding on mud, chanting, and celebrating the likes of Jimi Hendrix letting loose with a discordant “Star Spangled Banner.” Goodman’s Woodstock is the ultimate nostalgia journey, yet while the film lives in the past, its message supplies more than an iota of hope that we can get along and make some positive changes in the future. Or as Max Yasgur noted to audience: “The important thing that you’ve proven to the world is that a half a million kids — and I call you kids because I have children that are older than you are — a half million young people can get together and have three days of fun and music and have nothing but fun and music, and I — God Bless You for it!”

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Dancing in a cow pasture

[Woodstock: Three Days that Defined a Generation is having its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival before opening in New York City on May 24th and in Los Angeles on June 7th.]

Brandon Judell has published in The Village Voice, The Advocate, and 50 or so other outlets. He is currently a lecturer at The City College of New York.

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