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The Lens: Woodstock - Part 1: The original

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 8, 2009 - As you've undoubtedly heard by now, it was 40 years and a bit ago that half a million young people descended onto a small piece of farmland in upstate New York to attend a three-day-long music festival, a small portion of them having even purchased tickets.

As the crowd swelled into a medium-sized community, visible if not by satellite, then certainly by the armada of TV news helicopters who flew by to cover the event, what looked from a distance like a natural disaster (highways blocked, emergency supplies of water flown in) has become a legend in social and musical history, a euphemism for a pipe dream of Utopian harmony that has evaporated in the subsequent decades.

The Woodstock festival would have become a very small event in the history of the 1960s had someone not had the foresight to hire Michael Wadleigh to film the event. Wadleigh brought in a small army of New York filmmakers (including Martin Scorsese) to cover the entire event, from the performers on stage to the lines outside the portable toilets, shooting thousands of feet of film - literally every available can of film stock available in the New York area.

"Woodstock" - the movie - was an enormous success when it opened less than a year after the festival (unlike the original event itself, which was a financial disaster), launching careers, inspiring imitators and taking its place in popular history as a definitive portrait of its era.

I've always felt somewhat ambivalent toward Wadleigh's film. It's long and often irritatingly ragged in structure. The musical performances are uneven and on occasion even outright self-indulgent. (Since many of the more well-known acts refused to give Wadleigh releases to include their performances, a lot of screen time was given over to lesser known performers, many of whom - Joe Cocker and Carlos Santana, for example - received major career boosts). And though I think I've only seen it in its entirety once, a very long time ago, it's one of those films that I'll stop and watch for 30 minutes or so - despite my reservations - whenever I run across a TV screening.

There is a sentimental quality to the film that, after 40 years, officially qualifies as nostalgia, but there's also an element of voyeurism. Not from the skinny-dippers and naked mud-sliders, but from the many interviews with very earnest and intense festival-goers who deliver intense but almost completely incoherent statements about the sheer grooviness of it all. It's hard not think: Where are they now? And what were they on?

The Lens is the blog of Cinema St. Louis, hosted by the Beacon.