‘Woodstock’ doc comes to Kendall big screen with too small a vision for moment it honors
“Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation” (2019) should never be confused with the indelible 1970 rock-doc “Woodstock: Three Days of Peace and Music” that captured the iconic concert in all its ragtag glory and raucous verve. Sure, filmmakers Barak Goodman (“Oklahoma City”) and co-director Jamila Ephron (“Far from the Tree”) are playing on the title, and the film’s about the same event, but surely they can’t be trying to outdo Michael Wadleigh and his talented crew – including a very young Martin Scorsese as an editor?
The project put together for PBS for the music festival’s 50th anniversary is a nice, light reminder of what was – a love-in postcard, if you will – and does an adequate job of capturing the political turmoil and spirit of the moment. But if you’re coming to “Three Days that Defined a Generation” for the music, you’ll likely be disappointed. Wadleigh’s doc (and I need to stop mentioning it, but it’s impossible not to) captured Jimi, The Who, Janice, Santana, the Airplane and Joe Cocker in all their sweaty, electric grandeur; “Three Days That Defined a Generation” gives you 30-second metes that look like shortened outtakes of the same footage. If that doesn’t drive you to Wadleigh’s baby, you’re not interested in these legendary acts, performances or the historical significance of the ambitious concert and should stop reading this right now and go get a ticket for “Godzilla.”
One angle that “Three Days That Defined a Generation” takes that gives some fresh perspective is dialing back to three years earlier as Woodstock co-founders John Roberts and Joel Makower borrow money from the Polident fortune to get the venture off the ground. Then there’s the quest for space. Folks from Woodstock and other neighboring townships wanted little to do with a horde of rebellious youth and hippies, but diehard GOP dairy farmer Max Yasgur stepped in and served up his vast fields, and it was on. No one knew how big it would be (a half-million people) or the logistical miscues for hosting that many people in a podunk north of New York City that included getting sets, security and food up and running. The most affecting moment comes when Yasgur addresses the sea of youth from the stage.
Most of it is in that other doc too. Goodman and Ephron do get testimony from attendees, staffers and a few of the performers, including Richie Havens, Joan Baez and Cocker. Most of it’s fine but lacking the fiery energy of the moment. The affect is mostly flat; it’s a real non-starter when someone says The Who or Jimi was “good” – that’s like what, a C or a B-minus? And you don’t have more than a few chords to see that were nothing short of explosive.
Still, “Three Days That Defined a Generation” takes us there. It’s a rock-doc by definition, but more a pat historical rewind. It’s not possible to top Wadleigh’s masterpiece, one of the five greatest rock docs of all time (with “Stop Making Sense,” the Scorsese-directed “Last Waltz,” “Gimme” and “Dig!”). You feel imbedded. It’s more than three hours long, and you never want it to end. They were stardust, it was golden … and “Three Days That Defined a Generation” does little more than remind us about Yasgur‘s garden once upon a time.
A Kendall Square screening Friday includes Susan Bellows, a senior producer for PBS’ “American Experience” and two people who were at Woodstock: Bill Hanley, a festival audio engineer, and Jon Jaboolian, a “Woodstock veteran.”
Tom Meek is a writer living in Cambridge. His reviews, essays, short stories and articles have appeared in the WBUR ARTery, The Boston Phoenix, The Boston Globe, The Rumpus, The Charleston City Paper and SLAB literary journal. Tom is also a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics and rides his bike everywhere.