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As much as performances by Sly and the Family Stone, the Who and Jimi Hendrix, it’s the nonmusical moments that make Woodstock the defining document of the counterculture at its zenith. Smiling nuns flash peace signs at the camera, policemen eat popsicles alongside hippies, and elderly townspeople band together to help feed the army of fans. And like every aspect of Woodstock, the documentary’s very existence is a minor miracle.
Days before the Bethel, New York, festival, its producers, Michael Lang and Artie Kornfeld, inked a deal with Wadleigh — who had spent much of 1968 trailing Nixon on the campaign trail. The director hastily assembled a team that included a young Martin Scorsese as assistant director. “I think this was only the second or third time Marty had ever been out in the country,” said sound and music supervisor L.A. Johnson, who worked for Neil Young for decades until he died in 2010. “It was a struggle for him.”
The short notice caused serious problems, from a shortage of film (eventually raw stock from around the country was flown in by helicopter) to getting the crew to the festival site, due to a 20-mile-long traffic jam on the New York State Thruway. But Wadleigh diligently organized his troops, stationing one crew in front of the stage while others roamed the grounds looking for interesting characters. “I would come up to a group of kids, and they would be smoking a joint,” recalls cameraman Hart Perry. “They would pass it in my direction, and just to be friendly I’d have a puff. Two hours later, I was crawling on my hands and knees.”
Wadleigh and his small stage crew had a front-row seat to history, peering through a lens as key moments unfolded, from Richie Havens improvising “Freedom” all the way through to Hendrix closing the festival on Monday morning with the national anthem. “By Sunday, I remember thinking to myself, ‘This is just too much of a good thing,'” says cameraman Richard Chew. “Like, ‘I’m never going to listen to rock music again if I survive this.’ It was so overwhelming.” The crew members had limited film, so they tried to figure out ahead of time which songs to shoot. “Many of the performers were loaded with various substances,” says Wadleigh. “They’d give us a rundown of their set, and we’d dutifully write it down, and they’d wind up playing whatever the hell they felt like.”
Scorsese, to the side of the stage, desperately worked to organize the crew through a primitive headphone system. “Once the music started, I couldn’t hear a thing, and I put my headset down,” says Chew. “Marty’s an excitable guy, and he just started screaming. I couldn’t hear a word of it, and I think we kind of winged the whole shoot.” Scorsese’s frustrations grew as the weekend went on. “At one point, Marty tried to take a nap in a pup tent under the stage,” says Perry. “He knocked over the pole, and the whole thing collapsed. He had claustrophobia and was screaming for somebody to help him. But he wasn’t Martin Scorsese yet, he was just some schmuck from Little Italy.”
When the performances wrapped for the day, the crew slept under the stage or on the ground backstage. On the second night, a doctor gave everyone a B-12 shot. “After the 15th or 20th shot, we realized this guy was using the same needle on everybody,” said Johnson. “I was like, ‘Holy shit! That’s all we need right now.'” Some of the crew can barely recall sleeping at all. “We were really just going on adrenaline,” says Perry. “We were aware this was a major event. Never before had so many people come together in one spot. You never knew what was going to happen next. Was Bob Dylan going to appear? Was Jimi Hendrix really going to show up? Was the concert going to collapse? It was an unfolding story, and we didn’t want to miss it.”
Not every act wanted to be filmed. The Who initially refused: Pete Townshend kicked Wadleigh off the stage, so the cameras weren’t rolling when Abbie Hoffman grabbed the mike after “Pinball Wizard” and Townshend hit him with his guitar (shouting, “Fuck off my fucking stage!”). Later in the set, the crew began shooting surreptitiously, capturing a stunning version of “See Me, Feel Me” as the sun rose in the background. Neil Young also refused to be filmed during Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s legendary set. “Woodstock was a bullshit gig,” Young said later. “Everybody was on this Hollywood trip with the fuckin’ cameras. I said, ‘One of you fuckin’ guys comes near me and I’m gonna fuckin’ hit you with my guitar.'”
Amid all the chaos, no one asked the acts to sign releases. So Jerry Wexler — who A&R’d the soundtrack album for Atlantic Records — had to plead for signatures, one by one. Albert Grossman, who managed the Band and Janis Joplin, saw an opportunity to exploit the situation. “He called all the other managers and said, ‘We can really fuck them,'” says former Warner Bros. executive Fred Weintraub. “‘Let’s get all of our acts together and threaten that if they don’t sign with a large amount, we all walk.'” (As a result, Joplin and the Band weren’t in the movie or on the soundtrack — though Joplin’s footage is included in the director’s cut. The Band’s set remains unreleased. “Hopefully we’ll use the rest on the 50th anniversary,” says Kurt Galvao, who edited the bonus disc.)
When the concert wrapped on Monday, Wadleigh and his crew had 70 miles of raw footage — none of it synced to the sound, which was recorded separately. Wadleigh and editor Thelma Schoonmaker spent two months finding onstage cues that would allow them to sync the multiple cameras to the audio tracks.
A key decision made during editing was to mostly exclude hit songs. “Every song was put in for its lyrical or thematic value,” says Wadleigh. “During Canned Heat’s ‘Going Up the Country,’ you’re looking at images of the Hog Farm and the whole back-to-the-land movement.”
Wadleigh, who was consulted on the new edition, left the movie business in disgust after directing just one more film, in 1981. He currently lives in Wales, having spent his life working on environmental causes and living in Africa and Asia. He still vividly remembers walking through near-empty fields of mud and garbage after the festival ended. “T.S. Eliot’s ‘Waste Land’ was one of my favorite pieces of poetry,” he says, “and I was thinking about it at the time. I got out there and started filming that as if it were a war zone. And that’s why you see people in casts on their arms and legs, and hobbling down in the dirt. I felt like the Sixties were ending, and we were going to head into more-depressed times, and that a lot of our ideals were not going to work out.”