If the film isn't the best rock documentary of the best rock concert of all time, it will do until something better comes along.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

Is there anyone anywhere who has not seen or at least heard of "Woodstock," the event or the movie? For young people today, it may be a part of ancient history, but for all of us it's become more of a cultural phenomenon than a mere rock concert. To celebrate the 1970 film documentary of the occasion, Warner Bros. have produced several lavish box sets, "Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace and Music, the Director's Cut 40th Anniversary Ultimate Collector's Edition," on DVD (three discs) and the one reviewed here on high-definition Blu-ray (two discs). The boxes include not only the expanded Director's Cut of the film, nearly four hours long, but a ton of additional footage, music, supplements, extras, booklets, garment patches, notes, even a Lucite lenticular display of vintage photos.

Practically everybody knows the history of the occasion, too: Held from August 15 to August 18, 1969, on Max Yasgur's dairy farm near Bethel, New York, it attracted over half a million concertgoers, about ten times more people than the organizers had planned for. The event included over thirty of the country's biggest-name bands of the time, and, yes, looking back one might wonder if it was such a big deal why it didn't also include the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys, or even some old-time rock-and-rollers like Elvis, Chuck Berry, or Jerry Lee Lewis. Be that as it may, the music was great, the crowds were great, the sense of community among the attendees was great, the vibes were great, the movie is great, and results have become legendary. Every big rock concert since then has tried to emulate it. The documentary, now looking and sounding better than ever, has seen to it that people will not soon forget the party.

Director Michael Wadleigh reminds us that this was the Sixties with his constant use of split screens, varying aspect ratios, and such diversions for the music, the interviews, and the scenic shots. It was a time of hippies, Vietnam, racial tensions, civil-rights movements, women's lib, flower children, free love, increased drug use, and general social upheaval. "Woodstock," the movie, captures all of that and more.

The band roster is impressive and, alphabetically, includes Arlo Guthrie; Canned Heat; Country Joe & the Fish; Country Joe McDonald alone; Creedence Clearwater Revival; Crosby, Stills, Nash, and sometimes Young; the Grateful Dead; Janis Joplin; the Jefferson Airplane; Jimi Hendrix; Joan Baez; Joe Cocker; John Sebastian; Johnny Winter; Mountain; the Paul Butterfield Blues Band; Richie Havens; Santana; Sha-Na-Na; Sly & the Family Stone; Ten Years After; and The Who. Between the main film and the bonus selections, everyone gets his and her day in the sun. Or rain. Or evening under the stars as the case may be.

In passing, two observations: First, I find it a little ironic but wholly satisfying that of all the rockers who participated in the concert--some of them still thriving, some of them not, some of them passed on--that it is the traditional, folk, and protest singer Joan Baez who just recently got nominated for a Grammy. Second, the thing I found missing on the Blu-ray disc (and the accompanying table of contents) was any indication of the new material in the Director's Cut. The old DVD (in the old snapper case) used icons to indicate the eight additional numbers in the Director's Cut not included in the original theatrical version. Still, it's a small oversight in an otherwise impressive set.

What you have to understand is that this is an on-the-spot documentary, filmed in the open under trying conditions, largely with an Eclair NPR 16 mm camera. Not that there is anything wrong with good 16 mm photography, but Cinerama it ain't. Let's be generous and say the picture quality varies considerably from scene to scene, with plenty of grain and blur on occasion. Warner engineers do their best in remastering the film and transferring it to disc using a dual-layer BD50 and a VC-1 high-definition video encode. Although most of it is fine, actually, a definite step up from the earlier standard-def DVD, it never achieves anything like today's state-of-the-art picture quality. It is what it is, sometimes outstanding, much of the time ordinary, and occasionally looking a whole lot like ordinary definition. You'll also find director Wadleigh well into the experimental Sixties with his visual style, the movie's image size varying from about 1.48:1 to 3.18:1 and everything in between. Also, don't be alarmed when you see the first fifteen or twenty minutes of the film framed in the middle of the screen with black bars all around.

Like the picture quality, the audio varies all over the place, despite WB reproducing it in lossless Dolby TrueHD 5.1. Fortunately, TrueHD is the default, so you won't have to worry about changing it at start-up. Even at its best, though, the sound is nowhere as impressive as a slick studio recording, and it's not meant to be. Again, this is a documentary of a live, open-air concert. The bass suffers the most, practically disappearing much of the time; the surround sound seems oddly balanced, sometimes too little in the rear and side channels, sometimes too much; and the highs are not immune to frizziness.

Disc one of this two-disc boxed set contains the remastered, 224-minute Director's Cut of the movie, plus fifty scene selections; English as the only spoken language; French, Spanish, Chinese, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, German, Italian, Korean, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese, Swedish, and Thai subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.

Then, for those viewers who have their BD-Live compliant Blu-ray players connected to the Internet, there are three BD-Live features: "Media Center," "Live Community Screenings," and "My WB Commentary." The "Media Center" is a place for trailers, featurettes, photo galleries, and other such stuff. "Live Community Screenings" allows you to invite friends for virtual screenings at a specified time and chat with them on-line as the movie plays on each person's BD player. "My WB Commentary" allows you to record and post your own picture-in-picture commentary over the film, then share it with friends. You need a Web camera for this besides a BD-Live hookup, but it sounds pretty cool.

The second Blu-ray disc contains the rest of the bonus materials. First, we get "Woodstock: Untold Stories," eighteen bonus performances not found in the Director's Cut. These include Joan Baez: "One Day at a Time"; Country Joe McDonald: "Flying High"; Santana: "Evil Ways"; Canned Heat: "I'm Her Man" and "On the Road Again"; Mountain: "Beside the Sea" and "Southbound Train"; The Grateful Dead: "Turn On Your Love Light"; Creedence Clearwater Revival: "Born on the Bayou," "I've Put a Spell on You," and "Keep on Chooglin"; The Who: "We're Not Going To Take It" and "My Generation"; Jefferson Airplane: "3/5 of a Mile in 10 Seconds"; Joe Cocker: "Something's Coming On"; Johnny Winter: "Mean Town Blues"; Paul Butterfield: "Morning Sunrise"; and Sha Na Na: "Teen Angel." The neat thing here is that the disc contains a Blu-ray exclusive allowing you the option of creating your own playlist and listening to only the songs you want.

Next up is "The Museum at Bethel Woods: The Story of the Sixties & Woodstock," four-and-a-half minutes on the amphitheater and museum now at the site, the museum chronicling the era. After that is a long, seventy-six-minute, 2009, multipart documentary on the making of the film, "Woodstock: From Festival to Feature." It includes interviews with the film's director Michael Wadleigh, executive producer Dale Bell, editor and assistant director Martin Scorsese (yes, that Martin Scorsese, who would go on to direct several fine rock documentaries himself), and many of the performers and filmmakers involved with the concert film. There are twenty-one segments in all, covering everything from setup to cleanup to aftermath. Even Hugh Hefner gets into the act.

In addition to the discs, the set contains a number of collectible items. These include a Lucite display with photo images from the festival; a sixty-page commemorative "Life" magazine reprint; an iron-on Woodstock patch; and various festival memorabilia, like reproductions of handwritten notes and a Three-Day ticket. The box itself is a sturdy, fiberboard unit covered in leather, further enclosing yet another box for the materials, the whole package encased in a transparent plastic slipcover. Moreover, each set is a numbered, limited edition. Plenty classy.

One final observation. Unlike some of WB's previous Blu-ray box sets, which I found might be too cumbersome and space-consuming for a lot of buyers to consider, this one contains an ordinary Blu-ray keep case for the two discs, allowing a person to put the big box itself somewhere else, like a closet, thus freeing up valuable disc-shelf space. Thank you, Warners, for allowing us the choice.

Parting Thoughts:
If the film version of "Woodstock" isn't the best rock documentary of the best rock concert of all time, it will do until something better comes along. Warner Bros. were correct in celebrating its fortieth anniversary with no-holds-barred box sets.


Film Value