Friday, February 10, 2023

“Woodstock”: Getting Back to the Garden

The New Beverly Cinema, on Beverly Blvd. in midtown L.A., dates back to 1929, but it was not always a movie theatre. It has housed vaudeville performances, specialized in foreign films, and (when re-named The Eros) devoted itself to porn. My most memorable visit came during my grad school years when—as a fledgling film reviewer for the campus paper—I was invited to come view Japanese auteur Hiroshi Teshigahara’s somber and claustrophobic Woman in the Dunes, all by myself, in an auditorium that normally seats 300. A brilliant film, but hardly my happiest experience at the movies.

Today things are looking up for the New Beverly, which was purchased by Quentin Tarantino in 2010 in order to show old films (always in 35mm prints) that he particularly admires. Last Sunday, I was privileged to see a screening of the Oscar-winning 1970 documentary, Woodstock. Of course it commemorates the famous 1969 festival that attracted some 500,000 young people to what was billed as “3 Days of Peace & Music.”

I’d seen Woodstock when it was released in 1970, a quick nine months after the 1969 summer festival that marked a joyous farewell to the tumultuous Sixties.  Now that fifty years have passed, I found myself struck once again by those youthful concert-goers who were so deeply in love with rock music, weed, sex, and their own bodies. The performance footage is memorable, including Sly Stone trying to take his listeners higher, Jimi Hendrix sneaking a mournful Taps into his apocalyptic version of “The Star Spangled Banner,” and Crosby, Stills & Nash admitting (after a masterful “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes”) that this was only their second performance as a group. Dale Bell, one of the film’s producers, has explained to me how a ring of expert photographers stationed themselves around the stage and in the light towers to capture the performers from every angle, in all their glory.

 But what I’ll remember best is the documentary footage that seems to cover EVERYTHING about Woodstock: the grouchy locals, the happy hippies, a free-wheeling chat with a cheerful Port-o-San man who admits he has one kid attending the festival, and another in Vietnam. Among the many memorable moments: an attendee insisting that U.S. government forces have deliberately seeded the clouds overhead to try to rain out this parade. What’s lovely is the apparent spontaneity captured on film: young people unselfconsciously grooving to the music, slipsliding down patches of mud after that rainstorm, stripping down to bathe in local streams, tenderly making love. The sound team captures a marriage proposal over the P.A. system, and announces the birth of a baby. (No telling how many babies were conceived at Yasgur’s farm over three days and nights.)

 Dale Bell has authored or edited several related books, including Woodstock: An Inside Look at the Movie that Shook Up the World and Defined a Generation. He readily cites moments from the film, and is happy to quote co-founder Michael Lang on why the festival still resonates in the collective consciousness: “It’s the music. It’s the lyric. It’s the being together.” After a long career that spans public television and documentary film, Bell is returning to his first love with a podcast he plans to call “Woodstock Matters.” Fifty-four years after the crowds dispersed, he wants to probe the festival’s (and the film’s) longterm impact: “I want to sprinkle water on it again, and see what grows.” His first guest? Musician and photographer Henry Diltz, recently honored at the Grammy Awards for his portraits of rock royalty.



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