The PBS documentary Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation debuted last year in time for the 50th anniversary of that historic cultural happening. But with the country now in the throes of social upheaval, on a scale perhaps not seen since the 1960s, the film has taken on even greater relevance.
“It’s extremely timely to be talking about Woodstock right now, because I think you’d have to go back to that event to see as inspiring an example of generational unity, generational passion,” notes Woodstock director Barak Goodman. “We’re seeing it all around us now.”
The 1969 concert in upstate New York came to represent the essence of the counterculture movement of that earlier era.
“It was a statement of principle of rejecting an old way of living and embracing a new one,” continues Goodman. “And even though the present moment is cloaked in politics, I think it has much the same sort of rejection of the old and ushering in of a new kind of way of thinking about life.”
The film, part of the acclaimed American Experience series, is now contending for Emmy nominations in multiple nonfiction categories including directing, writing, picture editing and sound. American Experience itself is up for recognition as Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Series.
Goodman says his brief from American Experience EP Mark Samels was to examine Woodstock from a different point of view than the seminal 1970 concert film.
“The very first thing Mark Samels told me when he brought the project to me was, ‘We’ve already got a great documentary about what happened on stage, but that isn’t the [whole] story,’” Goodman recalls. “‘We want to tell the other story. Just swivel the cameras around and look at the other side of it.’”
To accomplish that, Goodman conducted new interviewees with many people who attended Woodstock when they were young, as well as surviving organizers, supplementing those with archival interviews of key figures who conceived of Woodstock or played a role in pulling it off.
One attendee told him, “When you think about it, it could have been an absolute disaster.”
The immense challenges and constant setbacks endured at every stage of mounting the concert have become legendary: the original site in Wallkill, New York fell through after locals grew uneasy about the size of the concert; there was not enough time to build the stage, fencing and gates at the substitute location in Bethel, New York; the expected crowd of 50,000 swelled to a sea approaching half a million; roads leading to the site were so choked with cars the artists had to be helicoptered to the stage.
Tickets ran $6 a day. But with no practical way to collect receipts, event producers ultimately declared it a free concert.
“They were fighting all the time to keep it from falling off the precipice,” observes Goodman. “These organizers who were so in over their heads, they really didn’t know what they were getting into. But when push came to shove, it wasn’t about money for them, and it wasn’t about kind of capitalist values, even though that may have been their original motivation.”
Goodman’s film reveals many of the wise decisions and strokes of good fortune that staved off disaster. Organizers hired an eccentric outfit called the Hog Farm to provide security and logistical support, like running “freak out tents” for anyone who experienced a bad drug trip. They called themselves a “please force”—not a police force—doling out hugs and smiles instead jackbooted discipline. The locals around Bethel also proved a lifesaver, stepping in to provide food out of their pantries after crowds consumed every last hamburger and hotdog on site.
“When the chips were down, Max Yasgur [on whose farm the concert was held] and the community really rose to the occasion,” Goodman notes. “There were a lot of, frankly, religious people up there, and they felt called upon—‘summoned’ is maybe the right word—to help…They could see what was happening, and what was happening was non-violence. It was peace and love.”
Goodman’s film includes some of the phenomenal musical performances, and excerpts not seen in the 1970 Warner Bros. film Woodstock.
“Almost all of that footage of the actual concert came from the outtakes in the original documentary that were given to us after many, many months of negotiation with Warner Bros., who had sat on them for 50 years and never done anything with it. They were in a vault in their basement,” Goodman comments. “That footage came to us in bits and pieces, and there was no sound on it. It was a forensic job figuring out what the footage was of and where it belonged in the chronology.”
Woodstock situates the event in its time—coming in the aftermath of the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, and a society convulsed by protests over the Vietnam War. Anti-war demonstrations at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago had been violently suppressed in a police riot; Goodman’s film reveals how close New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller came to calling in the National Guard, after his office received inaccurate reports of anarchy at the concert.
“Woodstock is in many ways a story of restraint. It’s the grownups letting the kids have their moment,” Goodman remarks. “I think it’s a real lesson for all of this sort of heavy-militarized law enforcement and authority that we’ve got now, and a lot of people are protesting against, but sometimes just a light hand and backing off and saying, ‘Okay, rules are important, but sometimes rules need to be relaxed, and it’s better for everyone.’ That was what Woodstock was all about.”
Goodman has earned an Oscar nomination and two Emmys for his body of work. Many of his films have aired as part of American Experience, including Scottsboro: An American Tragedy (2000), My Lai (2010), and Oklahoma City (2017).
“I view it as one of the great lucky breaks in my career that I ever got involved with [American Experience],” Goodman tells Deadline. “They are all about creating films that tell big stories from little stories, that indulge nuance and complexity.”
As for the Emmys, Goodman keeps talk of such honors in perspective.
“For most of us who do this, it’s about the work and it’s about the chance to kind of move the needle on big ideas, and that’s what I do it for,” he says. “And the awards are just a little bit of a bonus at the end.”