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Woodstock Diaries
featuring: Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Richie Havens, Ravi Shankar, and Joe Cocker...

directors: D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus

180 minutes (E) 1994
D.V.D. DVD Region 2 retail
Also available to buy on video

RATING: 6/10
reviewed by Paul Higson
Woodstock is Woodstock, but I grew up to a soundtrack of glam, Yes Sir, I Can Boogie, punk, new wave and mod, and diverse it was but the twang, strum, bang and guitar ruckus of the first great happening was a country and a time away from young me. I caught Michael Wadleigh's film, Woodstock, in time, and there was little in it of the pop character that commonly took me to the record shops. Jimi Hendrix, of course, amazes, but did you have to be there to fully flavour it? Had you been there, it is likely that the music was the last thing you were going to experience with 500,000 people attending, many of them gatecrashers, and another one million estimated on the way refused entry on a music 'fair' that no longer had a ticket gate. A truer picture of the event for many may have been a stoned meander in and out of the crowd with the occasional glimpse of a distant stage and the faint sound of the music.

The Woodstock Diaries, directed by D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hedegus, appears made for television scheduling, three episodes and a suggestion of chronological order, with each episode focusing on a different day. To this end the three hours divided into an hour per day is not as epic as originally thought. It begins with catch-up interviews with the principle players, John Roberts and Joel Rosenman, the moneymen, budding television scriptwriters that placed an advertisement in The Wall Street Journal having 'unlimited capital' and 'looking for business propositions'. I would have gone for the new 'power source from the eighth dimension' but then I am a fool. Of appeal was an ambitious series of concerts put to them by Michael Lang, to be organised in Woodstock a location handy for the resident hip young country and rock things like Bob Dylan. Originally to have been titled 'The Aquarian Expositions' (you can still see a sign at the subsequent event promoting Aquarian Parking, either that or your horoscopes determined where you left your automobile) and to have taken place at the gloriously hick sounding town of Wallkill, the locals rose against it and new land was haggled for with a farmer in Bethel. I could describe how Lang dressed or I could lazily point you towards Treat Williams in Hair on whom the character was so exactly modelled. Of the three Roberts and Rosenman were ignorant suits but are disarmingly humorous and likeable companions 25 years on. Lang was supernaturally cool against the formidable odds his untried before jamboree presented, riding a horse around the 600-acreage as the stage and fences are hastily thrown up.

Then there are the musicians. Joan Baez makes an amusing start, eyeing up the hundreds of thousands of young thrill seekers before a first note is played and remarking "Maybe there'll be a few more people here by then. I'm not going on for a puny gathering like this." First up is Richie Haven with a beautiful bit of fretwork before moving on to Freedom - which he claims was improvised on the day... I don't believe him. John Sebastien embarrasses himself, a West Coast name, he behaves like a dodgy Uncle trying to fit in, enthusing about the discovery of tie-dying... you suspect he's done his socks and knickers too. The editing implies that he was only there to perform one song. If the fees hinted at for The Who, and sought by the Grateful Dead management, are anything to go by, one song Joes like this were not the general idea but possibly what the odd act thought was expected of them. It is not going to be clarified in this documentary. The Incredible String Band is seen arriving dramatically by helicopter but are only allowed to play for a minute, resulting in one of the shortest chapters on a DVD menu ever. Is it because they are British? Other Britons on board for the event are The Who and Joe Cocker, playing Saturday and Sunday respectively.

The first day is pleasant and folksy with Baez topping the bill and represented here by two songs, one a tribute to her sister Mimi, then recently bereaved from her husband, a key figure in the scene (Mimi died last year). The androgynous Bert Sommers sings the lovely Jennifer (a song he is lucky wasn't stolen by the Monkees, it sounds so right for Davy Jones) and Ravi Shanker performs Raga Manj Khamaj. Arlo Guthrie is clearly stoned and stops the song to ponder what the lyrics really mean, beginning again once he has figured it out for us, leaving the audience more confused than before. Perhaps he shouldn't have tried cover-versions. Then again, given his condition, he may also have wondered what his own songs were about singing them that evening.

Saturday and the event truly rocks. Mountain is a four-strong guitar crash and drum-kit thunder act completely unknown to me and are heavy rock in the mould of Iron Butterfly. Only their fourth gig it was a rousing performance that has been unwarrantedly put down. Santana are magnificent and breath real life into the event, even with Sly and the Family Stone, Canned Heat and The Who, remember, also on the bill this day. Janis Joplin's voice is magnificent through Try and Ball And Chain. It appears out of sequence for the appearance of Jefferson Airplane who with Grace Slick inevitably to soar through Somebody To Love and lollop and jab upwards through White Rabbit, but they are the morning call on the 'Saturday' bill, the performances having continued throughout the night.

The feeding of the 400,000 is conducted with a breakfast of granola, and no sooner is Joe Cocker done and the British bugger has only gone and brought the bad weather with him. Wild winds and rain turn the fields to mud and automatic is the inception of the mud sliding now synonymous with wet festivals. Sundays are drab enough without sopping clothes and the acts that occupy the closing day of the festival are largely folk classic, what with Crosby, Stills and Nash, The Band and Country Joe and the Fish (who wrote the filthy title track for Quiet Days In Clichy). Albino Johnny Winter is disappointing as are most of the acts that day, but before you can say, but I would have had a Saturday ticket, here comes Jimi Hendrix, perhaps the only person everyone can identify as being on the bill.

The interviews are slotted in here and there and unfamiliar with most of the renowned Pennebaker's work it is easy to decide him overrated. It is perhaps ungrateful to assume that enough cine cameras were prepared for this historical weekend, but dropouts or not, addictions to feed and so, there were 400,000 people attending and there must be more footage out there. Unavoidably, with key performances captured by Michael Wadleigh, it is dependent on important moments and had to request them from that filmmaker, Wadleigh credited as one of the cameramen on The Woodstock Diaries. Rather than another long series of highlights perhaps future filmmakers with a yearning to cover this event will take a more singular approach. How about a fictional account based on the experience of one person travelling to the event and joining the community with the music barely in audible range. How about documentaries focusing on specific bands and their part in the concerts? The band biographies on the disc are scant though there are downloadable DVD-ROM biographies also. Perhaps someone will make the joyous decision to pick up and release the original theatrical double bill of Murray Lerner's Jimi Hendrix Live at the Isle of Wight and Francois Reichenbach's Medicine Ball Caravan, that were the next steps in community, touring and major music festival events. The extra titled The Woodstock Story is no more than a written chapter partially transcribing original filmed contributions to this DVD. It should be better, is unsatisfactory by television standards, resting on the music footage. It serves though as something that you can put on in the background at parties or while you are otherwise engaged. As occasionally impressed as I thought I was, however, the faint trickle of turn of the 1980s' Queen and Blondie from a radio a room away, by the unfair rules of the laws of nostalgia, touch me more acutely. For others the advantage of those same laws will lie with The Woodstock Diaries.
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