2019 Tribeca Film Festival movie review: ‘Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation’

April 30, 2019

by Carla Hay

“Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation” (Photo by Elliot Landy/The Image Works)

“Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation”

Directed by Barak Goodman

World premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on April 28, 2019.

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the legendary 1969 Woodstock Music Festival, PBS commissioned a documentary about the event, which is often credited as being the most influential concert festival in history. Emmy-winning director Ken Burns was announced as the documentary’s director, but he left the project. The documentary ended up in the very capable hands of director Barak Goodman, whose credits include the Oscar-nominated documentary “Scottsboro: An American Tragedy” and the gerrymandering documentary “Slay the Dragon,” which had its world premiere at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival.

Of course, this PBS “Woodstock” documentary and any other movie about Woodstock will be overshadowed by director Michael Wadleigh’s Oscar-winning 1970 “Woodstock” documentary epic, which is still considered the definitive chronicle of the event. However, Goodman’s “Woodstock” (which has plenty of concert footage from the festival) stands as a solid companion piece. Whereas the original “Woodstock” movie was essentially a concert film, this PBS “Woodstock” documentary attempts to fill in a lot of the behind-the-scenes blanks, much like bonus commentary does on a home-video release.

There has been so much that’s already been written, said and reported about the original Woodstock Music Festival that there is not much new information to uncover. The festival—which took place August 15 to August 18, 1969, in Bethel, New York—was billed as “An Aquarian Exposition: 3 Days of Peace & Music.” (The concert ended up extending into the morning hours of a fourth day.) The lineup was a who’s who of many of the biggest names in music in the late 1960s, including Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Santana, The Who, Jefferson Airplane, Joe Cocker, the Grateful Dead, Joan Baez, Creedence Clearwater Revival (who were not in the original “Woodstock” documentary), Sly and the Family Stone and Crosby, Stills & Nash. The concert was originally expected to attract about 50,000 people. Instead, approximately 400,000 people showed up and made it an unprecedented cultural event, despite the overcrowding, food shortages, drug-induced freakouts, downpours of rain, safety issues and the underlying threat that the government might shut down the concert.

“Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation” takes a chronological look at the challenges and problems that the festival encountered, told mostly from the perspective of the festival’s organizers and attendees. There are only a handful of artists (including David Crosby and Richie Havens) interviewed for this documentary. All of the new interviews for the movie are voiceovers, which was a wise artistic choice, since video cutaways to talking-head commentators would just distract from the movie’s intentions of transporting viewers back to the Woodstock Festival.

The four people who are given the most credit for being the founders of the Woodstock Festival are John Roberts, Joel Rosenman, Artie Kornfeld and Michael Lang. Roberts (an heir to the Poligrip/Polident fortune) and Rosenman were the producers who put up the money for the event. It was through Roberts and Rosenman’s New York-based Media Sound company that they met Kornfeld and Lang, who both came from music backgrounds. Lang was the only one at the time who had experience as a concert promoter. All of them are interviewed for the documentary, as are other key members of the original Woodstock team, such as director of operations Mel Lawrence and Stan Goldstein, a campground coordinator who researched portable toilet needs for the event.

The opening-day party for Media Sound morphed into the idea of putting on an all-star outdoor festival named Woodstock, much like the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival in California. The city of Woodstock in upstate New York wasn’t actually available, but the idea was to have the festival in a sprawling area in the region, since the urban density of New York City wasn’t an option. Lang was adamant about having the festival in a grassy area, not at a raceway.

The Woodstock promoters originally chose Wallkill, New York, for the concert site. But when Wallkill’s city officials realized that their city would be overrun with hundreds of thousands of hippies and other counter-culture people, they voted in an ordinance to prevent gatherings of more than 5,000 people, thereby canceling Woodstock’s permit. Fortunately, an unexpected hero stepped in to save the festival: a conservative Republican named Max Yasgur, who donated his farm in Bethel for the concert site. Within two days, the city of Bethel approved the permit, and Woodstock was revived, but the festival had to scramble to create the stages and other infrastructure in time for the event. They didn’t have enough time to do a thorough job, and many aspects of the festival’s production were incomplete by the time the festival began. It’s repeated many times in the documentary that Woodstock was under-staffed and under-stocked. Needless to say, because most of the overcrowded festival’s attendees got in for free, Woodstock’s investors lost a lot of money because of this event.

Ironically, Lang’s Woodstock Ventures faced similar financial and legal issues for its Woodstock 50 concert, which had been announced to take place in Watkins Glen, New York, from August 16 to August 18, 2019. At the time of this writing, Woodstock 50’s main investor pulled out (citing concerns about overcrowding and safety), a permit for the festival hasn’t been issued, and tickets haven’t even gone on sale. The concert industry is very different today than it was in 1969, so there probably isn’t enough time to clear all the legal hurdles that Woodstock 50 is facing in order for this 50th anniversary concert to happen.

One of the best things about this PBS “Woodstock” documentary is that it really shines a spotlight on many of the unsung heroes who worked behind the scenes at the original Woodstock Festival—the people who slogged through it from beginning to end. The artists on stage got most of the glory, and most of the celebrities didn’t mingle with the (sometimes literally unwashed) masses in the crowds. The big stars who attended Woodstock also had the luxury of leaving behind the messiness of Woodstock by helicopter, since the festival had traffic jams and roadblocks during the entire event.

Food for Love was a three-person operation that made a huge but underrated difference at Woodstock. The group was hired on relatively short notice, because the original food contractor for Woodstock backed out of the event after Wallkill canceled the festival’s permit. When the food supply at the festival began to run dangerously low, Food for Love, with the help of numerous volunteers, stepped in to help feed people and even gave away a lot of food for free—something that would be unheard of in today’s over-priced festival environment. (According to the documentary, a lot of people “paid” for the free food by giving marijuana joints to the people handing out the food.) Yasgur, who died in 1973 at the age of 53, also provided a lot of the free food from his farm, which inevitably became a garbage-filled disaster area after the festival was over. Milk, oats and rice became welcomed and common nourishment at the festival.

The documentary interviews hippie icon Wavy Gravy, who stepped in to emcee at Woodstock and brought his Hog Farm community to the festival as unofficial security. The Hog Farm called themselves a “please force” instead of a “police force.” Wavy Gravy and the Hog Farm were instrumental in keeping the crowds calmer than they could have been, given the high levels of drug use at the concert. Speaking of drug use at Woodstock, the documentary mentions that the festival was perhaps the first major concert event to have a massive amount of “freak-out” tents, where people tripping out on drugs could go to ride out their experiences. The tents were a necessity, given that medical assistance was also in short supply.

Another aspect of the festival that would be unthinkable today was the lack of adequate communication coming in and out of the festival. Because Woodstock happened decades before smartphones and the Internet existed, the festival had to make news announcements on stage, since most attendees did not have on-site access to radios, TV and newspapers. In addition, announcements were made on stage for festival attendees to contact frantic loved ones or friends who were looking for them. At the festival’s information center, attendees had to pin notes on the walls to get messages to other attendees. It’s hard to imagine today’s generation of young concertgoers being able to cope with these conditions.

Through testimonials of several attendees, the documentary de-mystifies the image of Woodstock being a blissful “peace and love” party. Yes, there were numerous people who had a good time and have fond memories of Woodstock, even if many of those memories were clouded by whatever drugs they were on at the time. But partying at Woodstock wasn’t the whole story. The reality was that most of the attendees had inadequate food and shelter, and things got worse when the festival was hit with rainstorms that caused a lot of disgusting mud. The rain could have caused electrocutions on stage, but fortunately did not.

In addition, government helicopters were constantly hovering, as if ready to step in and treat the festival like a war zone. Nelson Rockefeller, the governor of New York state at the time, kept threatening to send in the National Guard. Speaking of war, the documentary mentions that many of the male attendees of Woodstock were afraid of being drafted into the Vietnam War, so the hovering military helicopters that caused a lot of noise and discomfort probably didn’t help their nerves.

Of course, the best part of the festival that gets the most recognition and the highest praise is the music. The artists who are mentioned the most as being standout acts at Woodstock were Hendrix, Sly and the Family Stone, The Who, Crosby Stills & Nash (who did their second public performance as a group at Woodstock) and Santana. In the documentary, Woodstock Festival opener Havens remembers that he didn’t want to be Woodstock’s first performer on stage, because the concert started late, and he thought the crowd would be angry. (He ended up getting a standing ovation.)

Although this “Woodstock” documentary could have used more artist interviews, they might have overshadowed the testimonials of the non-famous people in this documentary who spent a lot more time at Woodstock than the artists did. In the end, “Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation” is a deeper dive into the harsh realities behind the festival. The documentary may not have a lot of new information, but it’s recommended viewing for people who want more of the real story of what happened behind the scenes.

PBS/American Experience Films will releaseWoodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation” in New York City on May 24, 2019, and will expand the release to more U.S. cities on June 7, 2019. PBS will premiere “Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation” as part of the PBS “American Experience” series on August 6, 2019.

Woodstock 50 canceled before tickets ever went on sale

April 29, 2019

by Carla Hay

The Woodstock 50 festival has crashed and burned before tickets even went on sale. On April 29, 2019, “Dentsu Aegis, the festival’s financial backers, pulled out and stated that it was canceled, yet the organizers vowed to press on,” according to Variety.

As a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the original Woodstock Festival, Woodstock 50 had been scheduled to take place at Watkins Glen International race track in Watkins Glen, New York, from August  16 to August 18, 2019. Jay-Z, The Killers, Miley Cyrus, Santana and Chance the Rapper were among the artists announced as performers at the event.

However, the on-sale date for tickets kept getting postponed, and festival promoters (which included original Woodstock Festival promoter Michael Lang) were vague about ticket prices and festival packages. At this late stage, even if Woodstock 50 finds an investor in time to resurrect the event, there is still the issue of getting city permits in time to do the event.

Dentsu Aegis Network’s Amplifi Live, the main investor in Woodstock 50, issued this statement: “We have a strong history of producing experiences that bring people together around common interests and causes, which is why we chose to be a part of the Woodstock 50th Anniversary Festival. But despite our tremendous investment of time, effort and commitment, we don’t believe the production of the festival can be executed as an event worthy of the Woodstock Brand name while also ensuring the health and safety of the artists, partners and attendees. As a result and after careful consideration, Dentsu Aegis Network’s Amplifi Live, a partner of Woodstock 50, has decided to cancel the festival. As difficult as it is, we believe this is the most prudent decision for all parties involved.”

Lang’s company Woodstock Ventures reacted with this statement: “We are committed to ensuring that the 50th Anniversary of Woodstock is marked with a festival deserving of its iconic name and place in American history and culture.Although our financial partner is withdrawing, we will of course be continuing with the planning of the festival and intend to bring on new partners. We would like to acknowledge the State of New York and Schuyler County for all of their hard work and support. The bottom line is, there is going to be a Woodstock 50th Anniversary Festival, as there must be, and it’s going to be a blast.”

Ironically, the original Woodstock also faced the same problems with not being prepared for the large crowds of people expected at the event. (The organizers predicted about 50,000 people would be there. Instead, about 400,000 people showed up.) The original Woodstock Festival also had problems with city permits, which forced the event to move from its originally planned location in Wallkill, New York, to Bethel, New York, on relatively short notice. The relocation of the original Woodstock Festival site was thanks to a farmer named Max Yasgur who generously allowed his farm to be used for the Woodstock Festival.

There are more laws and insurance issues for concert festivals these days, compared to 1969, so even if a private citizen wanted to let the Woodstock 50 promoters use his or her property for the festival, all the necessary permits would still have to be approved by the city hosting the festival site.  You would think that Lang and his colleagues would have learned from the mistakes that they made during the original Woodstock Festival. It’s a major embarrassment that they announced Woodstock 50 and booked the acts before they had the necessary permits. (Most of the major acts who signed on for the festival have contracts guaranteeing payment, even if the festival is canceled.)

An unofficial Woodstock 50th anniversary festival that had been competing with Woodstock 50 is still scheduled to happen: the Bethel Woods Music and Culture Festival, on August 15 to August 17, 2019, at the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts (the site of the original Woodstock Festival) in Bethel Woods, New York. The event is produced by Bethel Woods Center for the Arts,  Live Nation and brand communications agency INVNT. The Bethel Woods festival has a lineup that leans heavily toward classic rock, with performers that include Carlos Santana, Ringo Starr, Arlo Guthrie, the Doobie Brothers and Edgar Winter. Woodstock 50’s Watkins Glen venue would have been larger (with a capacity of 39,000) than the Bethel Woods venue, which has a capacity of about 15,000. But because both festivals were going to take place on overlapping days, they were essentially competing for a lot of the same customers. One festival was bound to come out the winner in that battle. Woodstock 50 has now been knocked out of the competition.

Pitchfork has a timeline of the news leading up to the Woodstock 50 cancellation.

May 17, 2019 UPDATE: Woodstock 50 issued a press release stating that investment firm Oppenheimer & Co, a unit of Oppenheimer Holdings Inc., has agreed to serve as an advisor for the festival to find new financial backers.

Oppenheimer & Co. head of debt capital markets and syndication John Tonelli commented in a statement: “We are thrilled to be onboard for this incredible weekend of music and social engagement. We believe in Woodstock as an important American cultural icon and look forward to its regeneration.”

Reading between the lines, this statement essentially says that Oppenheimer & Co. is not a new investor in Woodstock 50 but will only help Woodstock 50 find new investment money. At this point, the festival is bound to lose money. If Woodstock 50 had already obtained permits to have the event, then it might look more promising  that the festival will happen. But with no permits and no tickets on sale only three months before the event, it’s increasingly unlikely that Woodstock 50 can happen.

June 10, 2019 UPDATE: In another nail in the coffin for Woodstock 50, Watkins Glen International race track has canceled the license for the event. According to the Poughkeepsie Journal, the race track released this statement: “Watkins Glen International terminated the site license for Woodstock pursuant to provisions of the contract. As such, WGI will not be hosting the Woodstock 50 Festival.”

Woodstock Ventures is still telling the media that the show will go on, but with two months left to go before the announced Woodstock 50 dates, it’s highly improbable that the promoters will be find a new festival site on time, get a permit, and build the infrastructure needed for an event of this size. Tickets for Woodstock 50 never went on sale either. Unless Woodstock Ventures wants to get Fyre Festival levels of ridicule and scorn, it’s best if the company just admit that Woodstock 50 is canceled and move on from this debacle.

July 10, 2019 UDATE: More proof that Woodstock 50 is dead: According to Variety, the city of Vernon in New York state has denied Woodstock 50’s application for a permit.  After being booted from Watkins Glen, Woodstock 50 had been hoping to relocate to Vernon Downs, a racing track and entertainment facility. Vernon city officials cited the same reasons why Watkins Glen denied the permit for Woodstock 50: There wasn’t enough time to put an infrastructure in place to meet safety and health standards. Unlike the Watkins Glen location, the location in Vernon could not accommodate overnight camping.

Woodstock 50 had expected 65,000 people to attend at Vernon Downs but, according to reports, there simply isn’t enough hotel space nearby to accommodate crowds of that magnitude. Woodstock 50 organizers were hoping that enough private citizens would open up their homes for rental, but it was ultimately a foolish idea, given the short time frame involved (a month before the expected event) and the legal hurdles that were necessary to overcome. Woodstock 50 organizers have appealed Vernon city officials’ decision to deny the permit. Once again, the Woodstock 50 organizers stubbornly refused to admit that the event is not going to happen, even thought it’s extremely obvious to anyone with common sense.

July 31, 2019 UPDATE: The people behind Woodstock Ventures have finally admitted what has been obvious for months: Woodstock 50 is officially canceled. In the days leading up to this inevitable announcement, several of the top artists announced for the festival canceled their Woodstock 50 appearances, including Jay-Z, Miley Cyrus, Dead & Co., John Fogerty, Santana, the Raconteurs, the Lumineers, John Sebastian and Country Joe McDonald.

After getting rejected by two venues in New York state, Woodstock Ventures made a misguided attempt in July 2019 to move the festival to Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, Maryland. Merriweather Post Pavilion has a capacity of between 20,000 to 32,000 people. However, there were issues with the artists’ contracts (most were contracted to play Woodstock 50 only if the event was held in Watkins Glen, New York), as well as the fact that Merriweather Post Pavilion would only be available for Woodstock 50 on August 16 or August 18, since Smashing Pumpkins are scheduled to perform at the venue on August 17.

Adding to all the desperate measures to keep Woodstock 50 alive and with no tickets ever put on sale, festival principals said that Woodstock 50 would probably be a free, one-day charity concert, with patrons having the option to donate money. However, Woodstock 50 could not name any charity partners, give details on how free tickets would be distributed, or even confirm if the one-day Woodstock 50 would take place on August 16 or August 18. In fact, the event never revealed any ticketing details for Woodstock 50, even when the festival was originally supposed to sell tickets.

Here are the cancellation  statements from the chiefs who botched Woodstock 50:

Michael Lang, co-founder of Woodstock Ventures: “We are saddened that a series of unforeseen setbacks has made it impossible to put on the Festival we imagined with the great line-up we had booked and the social engagement we were anticipating. When we lost the Glen and then Vernon Downs we looked for a way to do some good rather than just cancel. We formed a collaboration with HeadCount to do a smaller event at the Merriweather Pavilion to raise funds for them to get out the vote and for certain NGOs involved in fighting climate change. We released all the talent so any involvement on their part would be voluntary. Due to conflicting radius issues in the DC area many acts were unable to participate and others passed for their own reasons. I would like to encourage artists and agents, who all have been fully paid, to donate 10% of their fees to HeadCount or causes of their choice in the spirit of peace. Woodstock remains committed to social change and will continue to be active in support of HeadCount’s critical mission to get out the vote before the next election. We thank the artists, fans and partners who stood by us even in the face of adversity. My thoughts turn to Bethel and its celebration of our 50th Anniversary to reinforce the values of compassion, human dignity, and the beauty of our differences embraced by Woodstock.”

Greg Peck, principal of Woodstock 50: “The unfortunate dispute with our financial partner and the resulting legal proceedings set us off course at a critical juncture, throwing a wrench in our plans and forcing us to find an alternate venue to Watkins Glen. The timing meant we had few choices where our artists would be able to perform. We worked hard to find a way to produce a proper tribute—and some great artists came aboard over the last week to support Woodstock 50 — but time simply ran short.  We are greatly disappointed and thank all of our supporters, including the team at Merriweather Post Pavilion and Howard County Executive Calvin Ball. Woodstock’s values of peace and tolerance are more important today than ever for all of us to stand for and we look to the future for ways to honor and celebrate these ideals.”

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