Which Garden?: Michael Wadleigh's Woodstock

By Dave Saunders

woodstock-michael-wadleigh.jpgWoodstock, 1970

[The] illusion of blessed peacefulness in that Garden endures only for as long as do our conditioned expectations of Eden. There are the new-made Adam and Eve in the foreground, naked and awe-struck… The trees around them are heavy with appetising fruit; there is the fountain of life behind the trees… It is more charming.

A commonly held opinion of Woodstock is that it is a finely composed memento, but otherwise little more than Monterey Pop’s sybaritic, elephantine double: a three-hour advert for the ‘dropped-out’ lifestyle. Whilst a casual viewing might lend credence to these assumptions, if we look carefully we discover interwoven undercurrents that make it more than partisan persuasion, and more substantial than a simple concert film. For every depiction of utopian bliss there is an equal and opposite moment of dystopian misery; for every hard-won counter-cultural freedom we see on screen there is a sobering reminder that the binding chains of American conservatism still held fast and strong. If there is true and lasting heaven in Woodstock’s essayistic vision, then it remains tantalisingly beyond the hippies’ ideologically immature grasp. When the Garden’s limited resources ran dry, it was back to the dirty cities, back to the cold, conditional embrace of The Man, for the heavy-hearted pilgrims who had had their three, long days (or five or more years) of peace and music. The 1970s, for many of the Woodstock Generation, would be spent mourning this perceived loss of innocence, pursuing ‘sensible’ careers in orthodox vocations, or battling addiction and despondency: Woodstock, as the song says, had been a long time coming, and would be a long time gone. ‘The dream is over,’ said John Lennon to Rolling Stone in 1970. ‘It’s over and we’ve got to get down to so-called reality.’

woodstock-michael-wadleigh-3.jpgWoodstock, 1970

Woodstock almost certainly could not have happened – at least not on the same enormous scale – without two catalysing factors: the baby boom and the Vietnam War. A surfeit of young people, all of whom shared a dislike of the draft and of political posturing, saw that there was a compelling reason to congregate on Yasgur’s farm, if only for what might be the party of a lifetime. The shrewd organisers capitalised on both the hedonistic and spiritual needs of their customers, marketed the concert perfectly, and, as fate would have it, stumbled upon an ideal, and in hindsight charmed, site for such an event. Astutely, Wadleigh and company sensed that this would be something bigger than a run-of-the-mill love-in and invested time and money to capture the whole, expansive fabula – not just the accomplished and mostly topflight stage acts. And we do indeed construe that we have seen the entire festival, including its repercussions for the immediate, put-upon community of rural shopkeepers, landowners and lawmen. It is variously a ‘shitty mess’; a perfect community of ‘wonderful kids’; a hellhole of the ‘very lost’; a heaven in which people need and feed each other; and a free-loving commune bought by free enterprise. Wadleigh, Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker’s sophisticated, empathetic and insightful collective worldview (coupled with a persuasive ‘fusion of vision and technology’) articulates their subject’s inherent tension with style, impact and perceptive depth. The film is all the more convincing for its peeling away of an attractive complexion to reveal the subcutaneous maladies beneath – problems that exist whether or not we deny them or brush them aside, like Pennebaker, in the name of myth-making. In a hallucinatory Mecca of mud and confusion in which ‘enemy’ helicopters were dropping flowers, the manifest absurdities of America’s second Civil War could not be ignored. The world in front of Wadleigh’s camera was not a clearly cut Manichean template (Vietnam or Woodstock; the Navy or the Peace Corps; Them or Us); rather, it was riddled with impetuous philosophical responses to what were, on the whole, unanswerable questions.

woodstock-michael-wadleigh-4.jpgWoodstock, 1970

A rhetorical case, however, is set out in Woodstock. The documentary gathers together its vast body of evidence and presents it, narrativised and carefully formulated, for us to evaluate. Wadleigh is a sagacious filmmaker, and meditative enough to realise that the positive aspects of the New Age, beliefs he now unequivocally endorses (advocation of peace, civil and economic reform and the denunciation of intolerance and environmental harm), were not entirely divorced from the negative and futile hedonism, self-absorption and crises of identity that eventually wrecked the more rational hippies’ commendable ideals. But it is with the contemplation of inspiring possibilities, not discouraging actualities, that Woodstock is concerned; at its crux is the idea that mankind really could live together in harmony, if only we appreciate what we have got, while we have got it – or, in the words of Joni Mitchell’s ecological fable, ‘Don’t it always seem to go, you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.’ The fragility of the Garden is the film’s core theme; the central message is that all this fleeting happiness is bought at a price to our conscience and morals, unless, that is, we work at making it last, and truly ‘set our souls free.’ Mitchell’s elegantly wistful ‘Woodstock,’ performed by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, closes the film on an insistent note:

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By the time we got to Woodstock, we were half a million strong,
And everywhere there was song and celebration.
And I dreamed I saw the bombers, jet planes riding shotgun in the sky,
Turning into butterflies above our nation.
We are stardust, we are golden, we are caught in the Devil’s bargain,
And we’ve got to get ourselves back to the Garden.

It would seem that the Devil still cannot be cheated. Ever more commercially cynical and logo-saturated anniversary concerts (that regularly enjoy considerably less luck than their archetypal namesake) continue to sully the dream. Whilst a dwindling band of nostalgic 1969 veterans gather illegally every year on Yasgur’s farm, plans are afoot to develop the original site, and thus instigate the ultimate phase of Woodstock’s commoditisation. ‘I think corporate America realised, “We can sell this,”’ laments Arlo Guthrie, ‘and so we started seeing pictures of natural women washing their hair in streams… We have sort of wrapped it up and been buying it and selling the image in various ways for the last thirty years.’ Soon – all counter-cultural threat having long ago liquefied into marketable nostalgia – we really will have ‘paved paradise,’ and put up a parking lot to ease the strain on the Thruway. ‘We do not ride upon the railroad,’ despaired Thoreau in Walden, ‘the railroad rides upon us.’

Dave Saunders is Visiting Tutor at the Department of Media Arts at Royal Holloway, University of London, and a freelance cameraman and editor