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Filmmaker Letter

Filmmaker Letter

Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation

by director Barak Goodman

“There were 15 cameras pointed at the stage and only one back at the crowd. I want to know what was happening in the crowd.” With those words, Mark Samels, the executive producer of “American Experience,” launched the project that became Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation.

His sentiment was right on the money, even if his math was a little off. In fact, when the original film crews under the direction of Michael Wadleigh descended on Yasgur’s farm to film the festival, there were about six crews focused exclusively on the stage, and three roaming on motorcycles through the crowd. The footage from the performances ended up in the original 1971 documentary Woodstock, one of the most successful concert movies ever made. Most of the footage from the crowd ended up in the Warner Brothers vault, untouched, until we came along nearly 50 years later.

When we decided to make our film, the hope was that this never-before-seen footage would help explain how a music festival on a farm in upstate New York became the iconic event of the 1960s counter-culture. But when we began to receive the first dailies from Warner Brothers, that hope seemed far-fetched. The footage came in no particular order, sometimes flipped upside down, and always without sound. Our editor spent weeks looking for clues in the clips—the weather, the stage in the background; the contours of the ground—that would tell him when and where a given shot belonged in the chronology of the festival.

Gradually, with the help of recollections from scores of concert-goers and concert organizers, the festival began to emerge from this footage in all its glory, or more accurately we began to sink into it like a sandal into mud. It became clear that Woodstock was not ultimately just a great concert; it was a trial-by-fire of a set of values—a way of living—that had up to that point been mostly just talk. Here, in the muck and mire on that hillside, half-a-million people had to either love and care for each other, or devolve into chaos and violence (as they would only months later at Altamont in northern California). And it was in this collective “decision,” that Woodstock became Woodstock, and the 1960s became much more than just a caricature of itself. Those young people showed a nation mired in war and internecine conflict how to get along, and how to achieve some kind of spiritual transcendence (even if helped along a little by psychedelic drugs).

Our goal with this film was to achieve something more than just nostalgia. We hoped to understand what they were after. What was really there underneath the clothes, hair, and odd lingo? That’s one of the reasons we decided not to film any on-camera interviews (there’s nothing to throw you out of the moment more than the image of a septuagenarian hippie). Fortunately, we think that our film does illuminate something of the soul of that time and place. And we have a ragtag group of hippie filmmakers to thank for it.

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