Woodstock

People try to put us d-down: a scene from the Woodstock festival, photo Elliot Landy, The Image Works

Documentary, not rated, 106 minutes, The Screen, 3 chiles

By the time we got to Woodstock

We were half a million strong

And everywhere there was song and celebration.

— Joni Mitchell, “Woodstock”

It was billed as three days of peace, love, and music. And against all odds, and the dyspeptic forebodings of parents, pundits, and the press, that’s what it turned out to be. Upwards of 400,000 young people celebrated their music, their drugs, and a euphoric sense of generational community for three days in the rain and mud and occasional sunshine, without fights or riots or disaster.

It was some kind of miracle.

That the festival happened at all was pretty miraculous. Originally planned for the little town of Woodstock, New York (where people still turn up asking to see the festival site), it quickly outgrew that idea and was transplanted to Wallkill, in Orange County. But when the town fathers there got wind of the proportions the thing was taking on, they nixed the permits. With more than 100,000 tickets sold, the organizers scrambled to find a venue and found the perfect spot in the fields of an accommodating Max Yasgur on his dairy farm in Bethel, New York.

The first part of the film documents the genesis of the project (it was to be a promo concert for a Woodstock recording studio, with a few acts like Bob Dylan and Paul Butterfield) and recounts the perfect storm of events in which “everything that could possibly go wrong was happening,” in the bemused words of an organizer.

The eleventh-hour move to the Bethel site meant tearing down and reassembling months of construction in a matter of weeks. It came down to a choice of whether to build a stage or a fence around the property — and as the estimated crowd of 150,000 swelled to three times that, it became apparent that there was no way to control tickets. Woodstock became the world’s largest free concert.

Filmmakers Barak Goodman and Jamila Ephron have done a heroic job of marshaling archival footage from that extraordinary weekend 50 years ago and of documenting the recollections of festivalgoers, voices cracked with age, as they remember the days that shaped their lives and their generation. The film focuses much more on the whole experience than on the music — for that, go back to Michael Wadleigh’s great 1970 Woodstock documentary. We see the “security” forces of Wavy Gravy and his Hog Farm commune; we hear the soothing baritone of Chip Monck (a classmate of mine) urging people to climb down from metal lighting towers as a massive electric storm approaches, and suggesting they seek comfort in “freak-out tents” for the effects of too many drugs. You may feel a lump in your throat at the extraordinary kindness of the locals, who supplied food when the festival ran out of it, and of Yasgur, a conservative Republican farmer who took the microphone to praise the deportment of the hippie kids who were spread out over his fields as far as the eye could see.

And there’s enough music to remind us of why we’re there. Highlights are Richie Havens, who stepped in to keep the crowd from getting restless when the traffic standstill kept other acts from reaching the site; Crosby, Stills & Nash, in what was only their second gig, blending their voices in “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes”; and the electrifying guitar rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” with which Jimi Hendrix woke up the remnants of the crowd on a muddy Monday morning.

It’s a fond look back at a singular moment in this country’s history, a time when young people discovered a shared sense of peace, idealism, and fun. And from the perspective of these times a half-century on, the film may bring to mind Hunter Thompson’s observation in his book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, when he mused about the vibe of that era: “We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. ... So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark — that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.”

Tags