September 16, 2019

Documentary Celebrates Woodstock’s 50th Anniversary

Photo courtesy of Elliot Landy/Image Works

In the summer of 1969, a little music festival drew nearly half a million people to a dairy farm in Sullivan County, N.Y. The conditions at Woodstock were miserable: rain turned the site into a mud pit, and food and water ran out. But billed as “3 days of Peace & Music,” the festival lived up to its name. There were no riots and everyone got to experience iconic performances by artists such as Jimi Hendrix, the Who, the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane and Sly and the Family Stone. 

Michael Wadleigh showcased those performances in the documentary “Woodstock” the following year. But in his new film “Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation,” director, producer and co-writer Barak Goodman takes a different approach, focusing on the experience from the point of view of those who were there through video and photographic images and audio testimonies of organizers, workers and attendees. 

“We like to look for small stories that tell big events,” Goodman told the Journal. “We were looking to understand and illuminate what the counterculture movement in the 1960s and ’70s was really about. We did that by turning the cameras around to understand what happened in the crowd.” 

Just 5 years old in ’69, Goodman wasn’t very familiar with Woodstock. He spent two years gathering his sources and assembling footage, including footage from the Warner Bros. vault, NBC News and Super 8 home movies. “The original movie took liberties with moving performances around,” he said. “We wanted our film to be absolutely accurate and a record of what took place.”

Going into it, Goodman “assumed the crowd were a bunch of hippies, steeped in the drug culture, very political. But most were young college kids, not particularly political or dyed-in-the-wool revolutionaries or hippies. At Woodstock, they realized there were others like them. “There was a feeling of ‘we can change the world, we can achieve these goals.’ People felt that for the first time at Woodstock,” Goodman said.

Aerial shot of Woodstock crowd.

In the film, Goodman chronicles how Woodstock came together — and almost didn’t when the original location fell through, necessitating eleventh-hour scrambling. “The circumstances could have brought out the worst in people but it brought out the best in them,” he said. “[Woodstock] tapped into the collective feeling of peace and love. It really did change the world, just like they said it would. It was a peaceful, positive, loving experience that shows people that that’s possible, especially right now when everything is so dark and divided.”

A Washington, D.C., native who was raised in Berkeley and now lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., Goodman is descended from Russian Jews on his father’s side and German
Jews on his mother’s. “I was raised in a strong tradition of social justice and pacifism, marching for peace and civil rights. My parents were professors at (UC) Berkeley and all that mixed in with being Jewish and the
way Jews behave in the world,” he said.

A love of writing led him to pursue a career in newspaper journalism before he segued into documentary filmmaking and a longtime association with PBS’ “American Experience.” His next film, “Slay the Dragon,” about gerrymandering and voter suppression, will premiere next year to time with the presidential primaries. 

Asked if he thought Woodstock could be held today, he was of two minds. 

“What made Woodstock happen in the way it did was its isolation,” he said. “Today it would be live-streamed and mediated by the media. In some ways, Woodstock is unique and won’t happen again. But the message that we’re in this together and can change the world if we work together is very much alive and well today.” 

Goodman hopes that audiences come away with “a belief in the possibility of the best of us, that we are fundamentally decent and good, and when push comes to shove, those qualities will prevail,” he said. “Mass collective action is the best way of change. I want people to be inspired by that example from Woodstock.”

Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation” premieres Aug. 6 on PBS, PBS.org, and Amazon.com and the PBS video app.