This director’s cut of Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace & Music
, released to coincide with the 40th anniversary of that legendary concert event, has to be one of the most impressive Blu-Ray releases of 2009 or any other year--and that’s even before you put the discs in your player. The box is designed to resemble a faux fringe jacket (with an iron-on patch attached), and inside are all manner of shiny bells and whistles, including a lucite paperweight with images from the event, a reprint of LIFE Magazine
’s original festival feature, and reproductions of various Woodstock memorabilia, right down to notes left by concertgoers ("Please meet me in front of stage. I have your insulin pills") and a three-day ticket to the event. And hey, if you’re looking for subtitles in Finnish, Thai, or Polish, you’ve come to the right place.
The movie itself now weighs in at nearly four hours long, and is presumably the way director Michael Wadleigh wanted it in the first place. The Blu-Ray transfer is definitely an upgrade, as is the soundtrack, which was originally recorded on 8-track tape under less-than-ideal conditions. (Using modern digital technology, audio engineer Eddie Kramer, who was hunkered down in what passed for a recording booth at the Woodstock site, has painstakingly restored the soundtrack--even bringing in some of the musicians to re-play their original parts, as on Santana’s “Evil Ways,” one of the previously unreleased bonus performances. Considering that the event is something of a sacred cow by now, this trick may strike some as blasphemous. Then again, this is hardly the first time that a live concert recording has been sweetened, re-recorded, or otherwise enhanced. In fact, it'd be hard to find one that wasn't. And the additions would have gone largely unnoticed if we hadn't been told about them.) In the end, though, there’s only so much improvement possible, and Woodstock was never about technical brilliance anyway. Nor was it mostly about the music, either. Nor was it mostly about the music, either. There are some terrific performances, from acoustic numbers by Richie Havens and Crosby, Stills & Nash to powerful electric contributions from Santana, Sly & the Family Stone, and Joe Cocker. But the truth is that Monterey Pop, which happened two years earlier, was the more exciting concert, and of the several artists who appeared on both bills (including Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, the Who, Jefferson Airplane, and others), all of them made better music at the California festival. But Woodstock was always less a concert than an overall cultural happening, and Wadleigh and his crew, often employing an effective split-screen technique, do a superb job of corralling and conveying the remarkable atmosphere and spirit of it; you didn’t have to be there to recognize that this was the zenith of the Age of Aquarius (it was also the twilight; with Altamont looming, things would never be this peaceful and idealistic again).
Of principal interest on the second disc will be two hours of additional musical performances, including both additional tunes by those who are in the main feature and appearances by five artists who for various reasons (ego, money, quality, time) never made it into the film at all; of the latter, Creedence Clearwater Revival is excellent, Paul Butterfield and Johnny Winter are good, Mountain is mediocre, and the Grateful Dead, with an interminable (38 minutes!) "Turn on Your Love Light," are awful (a special Blu-Ray-only feature lets users organize this material as they see fit). Meanwhile, "From Festival to Feature," a new, hour-long look at the making of the movie, is absorbing and minutely detailed. The Amazon-exclusive content (included on disc 2) is an additional 20 minutes of never-before-seen performance footage in high definition from Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, and Country Joe and the Fish plus three bonus featurettes. --Sam Graham