It Was 40 Years Ago Today: Re-watching Woodstock

“It’s really amazing. It looks like some kind of Biblical, epochal unbelievable scene!”
Jerry Garcia (The Grateful Dead)

“A bunch of stupid slobs in the mud.”
– Grace Slick (The Jefferson Airplane)

Yeah, Woodstock divides folks – even folks supposedly on the same side. Whatever your feelings on the famous Woodstock Festival, currently celebrating its 40th anniversary, it’s impossible to deny its lasting impact and cultural importance. For a number of reasons * I felt like re-watching the movie that was made of the event that fateful weekend. I’ve seen it before a number of times -usually on anniversaries it seems. I remember a party in ’99 with it on in the background via VH1 and I remember seeing it constantly on the monitor of the video store I was working at in ’89.

* One of which being the upcoming release of Ang Lee’s TAKING WOODSTOCK featuring comedian Demetri Martin as Elliot Tiber who came in at the last minute to offer his property for the event after it was banned from its original location.

I just borrowed my brother’s DVD of it from the late 90’s – as Martin Scorsese, who was assistant editor on the project, said the film “has shape-shifted quite a bit over the years” so I felt I was fine with the 1994 “Director’s Cut” and didn’t need to shell out for the new lavish 40th Anniversary Ultimate Collector’s Edition for an anniversary re-viewing you know? This was an old school DVD – it didn’t even have a proper menu and the video quality was pretty VHS but that’s apt because that’s how I saw it originally so screw digital remasterings! For now anyway.

The film makers had some fun with the standard ratings disclaimer at the beginning of the film – the “R” starts to ignite at the sound of Jimi Hendrix’s “Star Spangled Banner” guitar solo.

It extends to the word “Restricted” which quickly goes up in flames and the implication is clear – this movie is fiery cataclysmic stuff, watch out. That notion though disappears rapidly once you see laid back shots of farm fields and hippie folk arriving to take them over. Workers building the stage and setting up sound equipment while people arrive – some in colorfully painted vehicles, some on foot climbing through holes in the fence.

This all goes on a bit too long as it’s a while before we see an actual live performer. We hear studio versions of Crosby, Stills & Nash and Canned Heat tunes with a split screen image showing simultaneously Michael Lang talking to a reporter from ABC News while the second half of the screen shows the unwashed masses making their way through paths of parked cars and campers.

24 minutes into it, Richie Havens is the first performer. He does his hard acoustic guitar strumming thing on a few songs, stopping in between to tell the audience that the next day the whole world will read about how groovy they were. Out of sight, man! From there we see Wavy Gravy (still going by the name Hugh Romney **) mulling about hamming it up and then hear his announcement that the acid circulating is not poison – it’s just been poorly manufactured.

** For more on this see Michele Esrick’s excellent documentary about Wavy Gravy coming soon to a theater near you: SAINT MISBEHAVIN’.

This is where I get weary of reporting on everything in this already well reported movie and will just hit the highlights (or lowlights) as I saw them:

The Who’s bombastically beautiful “See Me, Feel Me” and “Summertime Blues” performance shakes things up after Joan Baez’s stoic stance of an act.

The audience is blown away by Joe Cocker’s ferocious “With A Little Help From My Friends” Beatles cover (wonderfully parodied by John Belushi on SNL Oct. 25th, 1975).

Jeez, there’s way too much drum circle footage combined with people running and sliding in the mud after the infamous downpour that the crowds tried to stop with a chant: “No rain -no rain!” Doubt this bit was what won the film a “Best Documentary” Oscar.

The most treacly bit: John Sebastian solo acoustic singing his song “Younger Generation” concluding by saying “That kid’s gonna be far out.”

Jimi Hendrix’s set is definitely the highlight of the entire event – despite that he was the last performer and it was early Monday morning and most of the massive crowd had left.

Hendrix’s mind bending take on “The Star Spangled Banner” is the bit that alone singed the “R” rating above. The set is available separately and for good reason.

When all is said and done in my book (or on my blog) there’s just this music on record that lasts from this colassally overwrought event: The Who, Sly and The Family Stone, Joe Cocker, Janis Joplin, and Jimi Hendrix. The rest is pretty iffy. For example: none of the Grateful Dead’s set has ever been released because it sucked – as band members have repeatedly alleged. And who invited Sha Na Na?

As a cultural historical document WOODSTOCK is essential, however as a fun rock concert movie it is bogged down with an unnecessary hyper significance – I found myself siding with Grace Slick’s quote above most of the time watching it. It’s an event ripe for major cherry picking – in this era of ripping a decent mix could be made of this but I may suggest alternatives like FESTIVAL EXPRESS and WATTSTAX for more consistent goodies. Just sayin’.

More later…

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Blasting Bogdanovich & 10 Definitive Rockumentaries

Who knew Peter Bogdanovich could rock?

This guy – the refined ascot wearing autuer who directed THE LAST PICTURE SHOW but is best known to the masses as Dr. Melfi’s shrink on The Sopranos not only can rock but he can rock for a long ass time. 4 hours in fact – the length of his new rock documentary TOM PETTY AND THE HEARTBREAKERS: RUNNIN’ DOWN A DREAM.

I made it through the whole thing and loved it (I hope my review below won’t take 4 hours to read) and it got me to thinking about other great rock documentaries, or rockumentaries if you will, so yeah – I made another official Film Babble Blog list. First though let’s take in Bogdanovich as he goes off on a Tom Petty tangent:

TOM PETTY AND THE HEARTBREAKERS: RUNNIN’ DOWN A DREAM (Dir. Peter Bogdanovich, 2007)

“Marty took 3 hours and 40 minutes to tell 6 years of Dylan and I figured, if that’s the case, why shouldn’t we take 4 hours to tell 30 years of Tom Petty?”
– Peter Bogdanovich on Sound Opinions (broadcast January 7th, 2008)

A big package this is – 4 discs, 2 of which are the 4 hour 15 minute director’s cut of the documentary, the 3rd disc is the complete 30th Anniversary Gainesville, Florida concert from September 30th, 2006, and the 4th is a soundtrack CD featuring 9 previously unreleased songs. Whew! Hard to claim to be just a casual Petty fan after absorbing all of that. Bogdanovich’s film even at its bloated length is engrossing and never lags.

Framed by footage from the before mentioned concert we are taken through the history of the band with interview segments spliced with photos, fliers, home movies, TV appearances, grainy videotape material, and every other source available. The ups and downs are perfectly punctuated with Petty standards – the punchy pop bright Byrds influence that brought forth the break-through single “American Girl” captures the band on a television stage young and green while the promotional video for “Refugee” shows them freshly on the mend from battles with lawyers and declaring bankruptcy.

Of course there are unavoidable rockumentary clichés that are as old than THIS IS SPINAL TAP – recording studio squabbles, the trials of transporting drugs over the borders, and the “Free Fallin'”-out of the band when they aren’t on the same page but they are amusingly displayed in a knowing manner that transcends the usual VH1 classic fodder. It’s hard not to think of Scorsese’s landmark Dylan doc when putting in disc 2 of RUNNIN’ DOWN A DREAM for the most obvious reason – as Part 2 starts the first words uttered, by Petty, are “Bob Dylan, I don’t think there’s anyone we admire more”. So the collaboration with Petty and Dylan begins – there is great footage from the HBO special Hard To Handle. Bob thrusts his hand behind him while playing his harmonica on the intro of “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” to stop the band from coming in too soon and it’s an amazing moment – the greatest songwriter ever (as Petty and I call him) directing the best working class Americana band of the mid 80’s and beyond.

Tom and Bob’s collaboration led to the Traveling Wilbury’s – the ultimate supergroup filled out by former Beatle George Harrison, legend Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne of the elaborately Beatle-esque Electric Light Orchestra. Petty’s approach was forever altered – which we see as certain band members have to cope with his new direction. Especially former drummer Stan Lynch, (who refused to be interviewed for the film but is presented in archive footage) who says bluntly of Petty’s biggest selling album “Full Moon Fever” – “there were more than a couple songs I just didn’t like.” Through the 90’s up to now we see Petty and the Heartbreakers weather grunge (Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl played with them on SNL right after Lynch left), a death of a long time but still considered “new kid” bassist Howie Epstein, and the competition from a world in which “rock stars were being invented on game shows” all with their self declared “I Won’t Back Down” spirit.

Though you ordinarily wouldn’t think of him in the same company as Orson Welles and John Ford, this masterful showcase of material makes a solid case that Petty is indeed in the pantheon of those previous subjects of Bogdanovich’s. Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam, who seems to show up in every rocumentary or rock related movie these days (even WALK HARD), appears at one point to sing a duet with Petty on “The Waiting” at a recent concert. When the song ends and the giant audience erupts Petty says to Vedder, “Look at that, Eddie – rock and roll heaven.” He’s right – for 4 hours and 15 minutes it sure is.

So since Bogdanovich’s Petty opus joins the ranks of great rockumentaries and because this year new docs ’bout U2, Patti Smith, and Marty’s huge Rolling Stones project will be unleashed on the market it’s time to appraise those ranks. So here’s:

10 Definitive Rockumentaries

1. A tie – DON’T LOOK BACK (Dir. D.A. Pennebaker, 1967) /NO DIRECTION HOME: BOB DYLAN (Dir. Martin Scorsese, 2005)

Despite the fact that I hate ties this shouldn’t surprise anyone, I mean have you met me? D.A. Pennebaker’s document of Bob’s 1965 British tour coupled with Marty’s wider scoped portrait of Dylan’s rise to fame are equally essential so I could not separate them. The Bob shown in these docs, with the wild hair, sunglasses and mod clothing is the same Bob that Cate Blanchett portrayed in I’M NOT THERE – the one most caged in his persona and held to the highest levels of scrutiny. Incredible concert footage flows through both films and hits its pinnacle in May 1966 when Bob faces a hostile crowd and a historic heckler – “Judas!” is shouted from the darkness one night in Manchester. “I don’t believe you – you’re a liar!” Dylan sneers before launching into a mindblowingly rawking “Like A Rolling Stone”. Scorsese and Pennebaker both capture lightning in a bottle and leave us with glorious glimpses of the greatest songwriter ever in his prime serenading the world even when most of the world wasn’t quite ready for his weary tune.

2. I AM TRYING TO BREAK YOUR HEART (Dir. Sam Jones, 2002)

Not a career overview but a capsule of one particular plagued period when a great band – Wilco – made a great record (“Yankee Hotel Foxtrot”) and it was rejected by their record company. Chicago critic, and co-host of the great NPR show Sound Opinions Greg Kot puts it best: “It’s not a VH1 “Behind The Music” story. It’s a not a drugs-groupies-celebrity kind of story at all. This band’s story is the music. 20 years from now their probably going to get more of their due than now.” Well let’s get them their due right now because this a compelling black and white film full of great music both in the studio and on stage. Key scene: leader Jeff Tweedy and guitarist Jay Bennett have a tense awkward argument over a crucial edit while mixing the album that shows how far they have drifted apart as collaborators. Indeed Bennett was asked to leave the band while the film was being made. The band grows stronger and gets a label and has a hit album which gives this rockumentary a happy ending and a nice second placing on this list.

3. THE KIDS ARE ALRIGHT (Dir. Jeff Stein, 1979)

Sure there’s that new more extensive and correctly chronological AMAZING JOURNEY: THE STORY OF THE WHO but this hodgepodge of Who with its odds ‘n ends, warts ‘n all, kitchen sink approach is much more exciting. In the first five minutes explosives go off in Keith Moon’s drumkit from a performance on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Show then we zigzag around to such ’60s shows as Shindig and Beatlcub, seminal gigs like WOODSTOCK and the Monterey International Pop Festival and then conclude with specially shot for the film footage from Shepperton Film Studios mere months before Moon’s death in ’78. We don’t get narration or anything in the way of historical context – none of the bits are titled and nobody is identified and it is all out of order – but the collage effect satisfies and everything jels together like one of best movie mixtapes ever. Key scene: The Who blow the Stones off the stage on their own TV special with a ferocious “A Quick One, While He’s Away”.

4. GIMME SHELTER (Dirs. Albert Maysles, David Maysles & Charlotte Zwerin, 1970)

The 60’s dream died here, or so the tale goes – just ask Don McLean. That fatal night at Altamont Speedway where Hells Angels acted as security for a free Rolling Stones gig made what could have been just an assembly line concert film (see LET’S SPEND THE NIGHT TOGETHER
for that) into a piece of true crime documentation that could play on MSNBC as well as VH1 Classic. The Stones had shed psychedelia and were getting back to their roots so in 1969, touring with Ike and Tina Turner and we get a good sampling of a Madison Square Garden concert (also featured on the album “Get Your Ya-Yas Out”) and a stirring performance of “Wild Horses” at Muscle Shoals Studio in Alabama before proceeding to the scene of the crime in California. We see Mick Jagger and Keith Richards watching the Altamont footage in the editing room and they freeze the image of a knife in the hand held above the fighting crowd and it is one of the most chilling images in cinema that has ever been seen. I don’t know if Satan was laughing with delight like McLean sings in “American Pie” but he was sure smirking.

5. LET IT BE (Dir. Michael Lindsay-Hogg, 1970) Actually the 60’s dream died here too. The break-up of the Beatles with their final public performance on a rooftop in London is a tough sad watch but one that’s vital in understanding exactly how the mighty can fall. Unfortunately because as producer and former Beatles assistant Neil Aspinall said recently “When we got halfway through restoring it, we looked at the outtakes and realized: this stuff is still controversial. It raised a lot of old issues” – the film may not see the light of a DVD player anytime soon. That’s too bad – even though it’s not the Beatles at their best it’s them at their most human and as uncomfortable as George Harrison’s studio squabble with Paul McCartney is (George: “‘ll play, you know, whatever you want me to play. Or I won’t play at all if you don’t want me to play, you know. Whatever it is that’ll please you, I’ll do it.”) we still somehow feel the love in what they were trying to make. And in the end isn’t that what they were trying to tell us all along?

6. DiG! (Ondi Timoner, 2004) Though most haven’t heard of either of the bands studied here – The Dandy Warhols and The Brian Jonestown Massacre this tale of the sometimes friendly rivalry will make people listen up. Billed as “a real-life Spinal Tap” DiG! follows these bands with their retro rock through a few years of touring, arguing, getting wasted, busted, and getting up to do it all again. Despite the fact that DW frontman Courtney Taylor narrates, BJM member Anton Newcombe steals the show over and over with his asshole antics and crazy talk like “I’m not for sale. I’m fucking Love, do you understand what I’m saying? Like, the Beatles were for sale. I give it away.” Maybe the funniest rockumentary on this list.

7. TIME WILL TELL (Dir. Declan Lowney, 1992) Bob Marley’s story is pretty glossed over in this doc but that is okay because it is so full of great footage with many full songs represented. Interview footage doesn’t really provide insights – except that Marley was always stoned – but footage from the One Love Peace Concert and various 70’s TV shows (particuraly the footage from the Old Grey Whistle Test, BBC 1973 pictured left) is worth many repeat viewings.

8. MADONNA: TRUTH OR DARE (Dir. Alek Kekishian, 1991) I’m sure there are those who will scoff but I added this not just because I realized that this list was too much of a sausage party but because it’s seriously a notable rockumentary. There sadly aren’t many docs about female artists so this will have to some representin’. This follows Madonna on her controversial Blond Ambition tour and has the backstage bits in DON’T LOOK BACK-esque hand-held black and white while the concert sequences are in color. We do actually get some amusing insights like when Warren Beatty, who briefly dated Madonna during the filming of DICK TRACY, says of her when she’s having a dental appointment filmed: “she doesn’t want to live off-camera, much less talk. There’s nothing to say off-camera. Why would you say something if it’s off-camera? What point is there existing? ” None I can think of.

9. THE LAST WALTZ (Dir. Martin Scorsese, 1978) Sure Marty and the Band (they were Bob’s band in 1965-66 under the name The Hawks) were both represented at the #1 spot on this list but this film deserves to place on its own. It’s a doc wrapped around a seminal concert film – the farewell performance of arguably the greatest Canadian band ever who play an incredible set helped out by their friends – including ace work by Eric Clapton,Muddy Waters, Joni Mitchell, Ronnie Hawkins, Ringo Starr, Neil Diamond (!), and their old bandleader Bob Dylan. The interview segments with Scorsese sitting casually around for conversations with Band members Robbie Robertson and Co. were parodied by Rob Reiner as director Marty DiBergi in THIS IS SPINAL TAP and they set a precedent for rockumentary etiquette. But for my money, the sequence in which Neil Young sings “Helpless” with The Band and accompanied by the beautiful backup singing of Joni Mitchell in the wings is one of the most infectious pieces of musical celluloid ever presented. That Marty had to visually edit a nugget of cocaine hanging off Young’s nose by rotoscoping in post production only adds to the affecting edge.

10. STANDING IN THE SHADOWS OF MOTOWN (Dir. Paul Justman, 2002) This film provides a great service – it shines a light on the largely unknown supporting players on some of the greatest music of the 20th century. The Funk Brothers provided the backing for literally hundreds of hits that defined “the Detroit sound” – the memorable melodies behind Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, The Temptations, The Supremes, and many others. This film gives us interviews with Bandleader Joe Henry and various other surviving Funk Brother members and we see new live performances where they play with such soul notables as Me’shell Ndegeocello, Chaka Kahn, and Bootsy Collins. An incredibly entertaining and emotional experience with a band that should be grandly celebrated for, as narrating actor Andre Braugher tells us, “having played on more number-one records than The Beatles, Elvis, The Rolling Stones, and The Beach Boys combined.”

Postnotes: I tried to focus on wide-ranging documentaries not straight concert films hence the ommision of the Jonathan Demme’s amazing STOP MAKING SENSE (which would place high on a list of straight concert films) and other worthy films of that caliber. Some other honorable mentions:

THE DEVIL AND DANIEL JOHNSTON (reviewed on filmbabble Oct. 11th, 2006)
GIGANTIC (A TALE OF TWO JOHNS) – A great doc about They Might Be Giants, a band who many left behind in college but is still part of our Daily Show lives.
THE BEATLES ANTHOLOGY – If you ever have a day to kill you could do much worse than watching this 674 min. production.
MONTEREY POP
METALLICA: SOME KIND OF MONSTER – This hilarious doc about a once mighty metal and going into therapy is the real-life Spinal Tap IMHO.
THE FIFTH AND THE FURY– Julien Temple and the Sex Pistols – need I say more?
THE DECLINE OF WESTERN CIVILISATION This and its 2 sequels which cover the history of decadent underworld of punk and metal are as essential as rockumentaries can get.

Whew! Okay, that’s enough rockumentaries for now. If you think I’ve left out your favorite – that’s what the comments below is for.

This post is dedicated to
Brad Renfro (1982-2007)

He appeared as Josh in one of my all time favorite movies – GHOST WORLD (2001). At least he fulfilled that old maxim to die young and leave a good looking corpse. Sigh.

R.I.P.

More later…