As can be expected by the anniversary of any culturally significant moment, the fortieth anniversary of the Woodstock music festival will include a plethora of events honoring that weekend in upstate New York, including a new DVD and first time Blu-Ray release of Michael Wadleigh’s film which recorded the events and people involved.
1969 was a year unlike any other. Man first set foot on the moon. The New York Mets won the World Series against all odds. And for three days in the rural town of Bethel, New York, half a million people experienced the single most defining moment of their generation; a concert unprecedented in scope and influence, a coming together of people from all walks of life with a single common goal: Peace and music. They called it Woodstock. One year later, a landmark Oscar-winning documentary captured the essence of the music, the electricity of the performances, and the experience of those who lived it. Newly remastered, the film features legendary performances by 17 best selling artists.
For the two hundred and ninety-nine and a half million of us who were either not alive in the summer of 1969 or unable to attend for various reasons (my father likes to say we [being himself, my mother and the then twenty-one month old me] were on our way to Woodstock, but our family van broke down somewhere in Pennsylvania), the film is the closest we’ll ever get to experience that final hurrah of the Sixties. Of tie-dye, free love and acid trips, of artists like Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix who left us far too soon, of people who with names like Wavy Gravy and Captain Beefheart. Yet, watching “Woodstock” four decades later, it’s easy to see how little has changed over the years. Then as now, a new President was in the White House, the economy was in shambles, an unpopular war was being fought half a world away that didn’t look like it was ever going to end, and there was a battle across the country concerning the civil rights of a group of people.
For amateur sociologists, “Woodstock” will an endlessly fascinating window to a generation and a world lost to time. Just to see the way people communicated with each other at the time, man, is far-out. Really groovy. And for a music fan, the ability to see performers like Sly & The Family Stone, The Who and Crosby, Stills & Nash performing in their prime, and discovering (or re-discovering) mostly forgotten acts like Canned Heat, Ten Years After and Arlo Guthrie should be thrilling. Yet, for all this wonderful nostalgia, there are minor but important flaws with each release of “Woodstock” that keep it from being the exceptional experience it should be.
From the first VHS release of “Woodstock” to today, a floating matte has been employed to “preserve” the aspect ratio of the the original 1970 theatrical exhibition. Yet, depending on the image composition on screen at any given moment, due to the film’s famous use of random single, double and triple-paneled images, the size of the images constantly changes throughout every sequence, which is not preserving the original 2.39:1 widescreen image. The images look sharp and clean, with very little artifacting noticeable on either a 15in MacBook screen or a 32in LCD widescreen screen, and nary a moment of dirt or scratches on screen.
Additionally, the original film’s mono soundtrack has since been remastered into 5.1 Dolby Digital Sound. And while the soundtrack sounds far better than it has ever sounded before, 5.1 surround sound didn’t exist in 1969, so at best this is the best guess of what the concert might have sounded like with these technological advances. It would have been nice if the original mono soundtrack was available as a choice.
All Photos: Copyright 1969 Michael Lang & Henry Diltz
However, the biggest problem with “Woodstock” on DVD is the lack of bonus features. This disc includes but one “bonus” feature, being a five minute infomercial for the new Museum at Bethel Woods, an arts center built on the original Woodstock grounds, an endeavor so detached from the event that it is hosted by Vernon Reid, the fantastic guitarist for Living Colour but someone who otherwise appears to have no connection to Woodstock. To get the truly special bonus features, one will need to check out the Ultimate Collectors Edition on Blu-Ray, which includes a Lucite display with images from the festival, a 60-page commemorative LIFE Magazine reprint from July 1969, an Iron-on Woodstock patch, a Woodstock fact sheet, reproductions of festival memorabilia, including handwritten notes and a three-day ticket, a two hour featurette “Woodstock: Untold Stories” which includes more than two hours of never-before-seen musical performances by Joan Baez, Paul Butterfield, Canned Heat, Joe Cocker, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Mountain, Santana, Sha Na Na, the Who, and Johnny Winter, and a second featurette, “Woodstock: From Festival to Feature,” which features a gallery chronicling the festival and the filming from start to finish, interwoven with interviews from Martin Scorsese, Grace Slick, director Michael Wadleigh, Woodstock Festival executive producer Michael Lang and many others, plus Enhanced BD-Live bonus features including the ability to customize your own Woodstock playlist.
Yes, DVD is a slowly dying dinosaur of a format. And, yes, it is time to help kick Blu-Ray up a notch in the minds of consumers as the must-have format. But a legacy title like “Woodstock” is not going to be the one that will get the format adopted by millions of users ready to get to the next thing. So while the 40th Anniversary DVD of “Woodstock” is a great experience and should get many baby boomers excited to see and hear some old friends again, let’s hope the next major legacy release from Warner Brothers Home Video finds some extra room for a few more bonus features for those of us who have not yet gone to the next generation home theatre format.Rating: B+