Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace & Music (1970)
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With nuclear proliferation, The Kent State shooting and Canada’s October Crisis in the news, 1970 couldn’t have felt further from the 60s spirit typified by San Francisco's Summer of Love. With the March release of Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace & Music, the public got one last taste of pure 60s hippie culture before being pushed into the turbulent 70s.
At 28 years old, documentary filmmaker Michael Wadleigh had the look and spoke the language of the counterculture in ways no Hollywood studio executive could. For anyone involved in the hippie movement, documenting a musical lineup including Santana, Ravi Shankar, The Who, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Jefferson Airplane seemed like a no-brainer.
Still, Producer Bob Maurice noted that film studios wouldn’t touch the Woodstock Music & Art Fair with a ten-foot pole, “No one else could have physically gotten there. And they wouldn't have been willing to gamble enough money. But we knew. We used our own money, initially, because we knew after Woodstock was over somebody would want to buy it.”
This thinking reflected a divide between Hollywood and popular culture at large. Countercultural representation of baby boomers in movies tended to fall on B-Movie producers like Roger Corman or independent productions like 1969’s popular, critically acclaimed Easy Rider.
Wadleigh and Maurice were right about Woodstock of course; up to 18 cameras under the direction of Wadleigh and his assistant, a young Martin Scorsese, captured a reported 120 hours of film as the crowd reached 400,000. Many of the touchstone moments of Woodstock, performance and otherwise, were captured thanks to the crew’s choice to document Woodstock warts and all: sex, drugs and plenty of mud are on display. After the enormous success and media coverage of the festival, Warner Bros. was more than eager distribute the film.
The filmmakers weren’t just hippie speculators though – they were creators who were poised to become some of the most technically competent filmmakers of the 70s. Future three-time Oscar-winning editor (and lifelong Scorsese collaborator) Thelma Schoonmaker worked with seven other credited editors to craft the vast amount of footage into a film that spoke to the experience of concert-goers and performers. Schoonmaker went on to earn an Oscar nomination for her work, while the film earned the Academy Award for Best Documentary.
It’s that sense of experience that helped make Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace & Music the fifth highest grossing film of 1970. Nearly half a million people got to experience Woodstock first hand, but it immediately earned a legendary status that captivated millions more.
The film reached audiences before the release of the live festival album; for months it was the only way to hear live performances by popular bands that had made a culture-defining impact. For that reason, it was held over for months in most major markets as people joined the experience and went back for multiple viewings. Its success lasted long enough to get a jocular mention in the sci-fi film Omega Man (1971) as the only movie playing after the apocalypse had hit.
By the end of 1970, Woodstock headliners Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin had both died of drug overdoses at only 27 years old, putting a tragic capstone on the story of Woodstock. The loss of their immense talents, the breakup of The Beatles, escalating war in south east Asia, the Apollo 13 disaster, and civil unrest in Canada, the US and around the world marked the end of an era and served as a chilling omen for the tumultuous decade to come. The spirit of the 1960s had all but faded, but the critical, cultural and financial impact of Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace & Music made a lasting impression on studios and filmmakers alike. The stages and crowds were gone, and Max Yasgur was back to milking cows, but a generation had come of age and Hollywood took notice, changing the face of film forever.
Watch Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace & Music (1970) at 9pm ET on HS70.
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