Blog Directory CineVerse: We've got to get ourselves back to the garden...

We've got to get ourselves back to the garden...

Thursday, January 18, 2018

What's the king of rock documentaries? It's hard to argue against "Woodstock," the epic three-hours-plus cinematic spectacle documenting the 1969 festival that got the whole world's attention all over again when it was released in 1970. Why and how was this flick important to the subgenre? The evidence is ample, as discussed by our CineVerse group last night. Here's a highlight reel of our talk:

  • It uses the clever technique of two to three split screens to be able to show multiple events/angles/storylines concurrently, thereby saving time otherwise spent showing footage each screen in a back-to-back-to-back linear fashion. 
    • This decision condensed eight hours of chosen footage into a three-hour-plus movie. 
    • Roger Ebert posited that the split screen is used as “counterpoint, as ironic commentary, as a way to see the same performers from several different points of view. (Director Michael) Wadleigh also uses it to compress his narrative, showing the sky clouding up on one screen, while people hold down a wind-blown canvas on another.” 
  • It was projected using 70 mm film, which is a wider and higher resolution film format than traditional 35mm film and enables projection onto larger screens; a “70mm film” in 1970 was and continues to be a rare occurrence reserved for special event films, like Lawrence of Arabia, Ben-Hur, West Side Story and others. 
  • It was shot on 16 mm film using lightweight handheld cameras, allowing filmmakers to reload film magazines swiftly, swap out lenses fast, and get in very close to the action, often accomplishing tight close-ups and intimate portraits with the performers. 
    • In fact, 16 cameras were utilized, generating well over 100 miles of footage. 
  • It shifted aspect ratios, going sometimes from 1.33:1 to 2.4:1, providing constant visual variety for the eyes. 
  • It was less a pure concert film than a true documentary, blending live performances with cinema verite style interviews, crowd shots, and fly-on-the-wall captures of behind-the-scenes happenings. Some performances, in fact, are interrupted by interviews mid-song. 
  • Unlike previous “concert films,” in which the camera was often a fixed instrument looking forward at the performers, this movie included reaction shots from the crowd, extreme close-ups of faces and hands on the instruments, and alternate angles from many different cameras. 
  • It doesn’t show the festival in an accurate linear timeline; it intersperses performances from different days and times to best suit the mood and flow of the film. 
  • According to Roger Ebert: “Few documentaries have captured a time and place more completely, poignantly, and for that matter, entertainingly. It has a lot of music in it, photographed with a startling intimacy with the performers, but it's not simply a music movie. It's a documentary about the society that formed itself briefly at Woodstock before moving on…The remarkable thing about Wadleigh's film is that it succeeds so completely in making us feel how it must have been to be there. It gives us maybe 60 percent music and 40 percent about the people who were there, and that is a good ratio, I think. Wadleigh and his editors allowed each performer's set to grow and build and double back on itself without interference.” 
  • The songs chosen for the film also weren’t necessarily the most popular, radio-friendly numbers by those respective artists; “this isn't a "greatest hits" doc,” Ebert added. 
  • This movie put the concert film on the map and demonstrated that it could be very profitable; Woodstock; it was the fifth biggest moneymaker of 1970 at the box-office. 
  • Based on the sheer number and variety of performers, this movie (and the festival itself) transcends a mere “rock concert.” Therefore, it appeals to a wide variety of music fans and tastes, and also provided many with their first glimpses of some of their favorite acts. 
    • DVD Savant reviewer Glenn Erickson wrote: “Musical acts and individual songs were included in the final cut based not on their pop status but on their lyrical contribution to the whole -- even at three-plus hours, Woodstock has a strong through-line instead of lurching from performer to performer.” 
    • Erickson added: “For us kids that were seeing their radio favorites for the first time, the live-performance personalities in Woodstock were a revelation.” 
    • It also introduced viewers to new or up-and-coming musical stars, like Crosby Stills and Nash, Ten Years After, and Santana. 
  • The end of innocence and an era: This was seen as the crystallization and apex of the hippie movement and the peace and love culture of the late 1960s. It demarcated, for many, the end of their dream and of the sixties, and the death of innocence in rock and roll; rock would become more crass, commercially driven and profit seeking in its product and its concert films henceforth. Consider, too, how the vast majority of attendees are young adults; we know that they changed, politically and otherwise, in the years that followed. 
  • Miracles are rare, but they do happen. The picture is endlessly fascinating as a time capsule event that, as dated as it can appear to be, is amazing in the way it captures the miracle that was the Woodstock Music and Arts Festival: the fact that 400,000 people descended upon this location and coexisted peacefully for three days, despite lack of food, water, medical care and transportation; no major violence, crime or tragedy occurred (although two people died). 
  • Peace, love and understanding is possible, even against formidable odds. 
  • There are multiple sides to every story: Yes, the vibe is positive and the attendees and viewers are rewarded with great music, but the film isn’t afraid to show dissenting views from local natives about the disruption the event caused and their objection to what the Woodstock generation stands for.

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