Woodstock: 40th Anniversary Revisited Blu-ray Review

out of 5

What is the defining moment of the 1960s? The answer is varied for many that were alive during the turbulent decade: the decades-long space race that culminated in man landing on the moon, the Assassinations of JFK, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcom X or Robert Kennedy, the March on Washington or perhaps it was the Vietnam War. For many of those who came of age in the late sixties, chances are that many of them would choose the Woodstock Music and Art Festival that capped off the Summer of Love in Mid-August of 1969.

While the actual event hits 45 this year, Michael Wadleigh’s landmark 1970 documentary — recently reissued by Warner Home Video in a 40th Anniversary Revisited Blu-ray — hits that milestone in 2015. A testament to the enduring power of both the music and the near half-million people who attended, Woodstock has held up remarkably well as both a piece of rockin’ good entertainment and as an insightful look at the Counterculture Generation. Thanks to the great efforts put forth by Warner Home Video, Wadleigh’s cinematic time capsule has never looked or sounded better.

Assembled from 120 miles of footage by a young Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker, Woodstock covers the festival from the start of setup on Max Yasgur’s farm in upstate New York and right on through the three days of “peace, love, music and logistical nightmares” that culminates with the muddy, trash-strewn Monday morning conclusion backed by Jimi Hendrix’s legendary performances of Purple Haze. Beautifully shot and presented in multi-panel widescreen and breathlessly edited, Woodstock zips right through its near four-hour runtime and never feels drawn out.

The musical performances from the likes of Hendrix, The Who, Richie Havens, Arlo Guthrie, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Santana and countless more haven’t aged a bit (okay, maybe Sha Na Na has, but still) and still provide perhaps some of the best live performances ever committed to film. But what really makes Woodstock enduring and relevant, especially as we get further and further away from the actual event, are the people who were involved in making this festival a vital part of history.

Through a multitude of interviews with festivalgoers and promoters, musicians and locals spread throughout the feature, Wadleigh perfectly conveys what the festival set out to accomplish. More importantly, he also provided a compelling snapshot into the musical, social and political ideology that helped fueled the sixties. Woodstock is not only a terrifically entertaining time capsule, it also manages to get the viewer to stop and reflect on the times, both then and now. How many rock concert films can lay claim to that?

The High-Definition Presentation

If it isn’t broke, why fix it? This old adage can certainly be used for the Blu-ray transfer on Woodstock, which reuses the 2009 transfer created for the original 40th Anniversary set. Could an AVC-encoded transfer with DTS HD-Master Audio have given the 224-minute film a bit of new life? Perhaps a little bit. But one has to keep in mind that there is only so much one can do with the source material and the VC-1 transfer is nothing to sneeze at.

There is wear and tear found throughout, mostly stemming from the 16mm footage. I tend to think that the marks and scuffs actually add to the film’s appeal. Colors and black levels are solid and film grain beautifully runs throughout. The 5.1 Dolby TrueHD track is largely a front-channel affair that faithfully replicates the audio presentation of the original 1970 release. There are some wonderful separation effects throughout, the interview dialogue sounds as good as it will get and the LFE channel shows vibrant life on occasion as well.

Beyond the Presentation

If you’re going to release a film like Woodstock every five years and make fans buy and re-buy it, you better make it worthwhile. Fortunately, this is exactly what Warner Home Video has done here. While you may not get a new transfer, you certainly get a lot of new supplements that were nowhere to be found on the previous 40th Anniversary Edition. Disc two contains the previously released material while Disc Three contains the new content. With one or two small exceptions, all bonus material is now presented in high definition.

Disc Two: 

  • Woodstock: From Festival to Feature (77 minutes): A collection of short features and docs dealing with both the festival and the documentary and includes interviews with many of the people responsible with making the documentary.
  • Untold Stories (143 minutes): The first batch of bonus musical performances from Joan Baez, Country Joe McDonald and the Fish, Santana, Canned Heat, Mountain, The Grateful Dead (a whopping 38 minutes worth), The Who, Jefferson Airplane, Joe Cocker, Johnny Winter, Paul Butterfield, Creedence Clearwater Revival (which is of interest since they demanded they be cut from the theatrical release to begin with) and Sha Na Na.
  • Festival Opening and Closing (5 minutes): Some deleted material from the opening and closing of the film.
  •  The Museum at Bethel Woods: The Story of the Sixties & Woodstock (5 minutes): A promo for the Woodstock Museum at Bethel Woods. If you find yourself in the area, check it out. It’s pretty cool.

Disc Three:

  • Woodstock: From Festival to Feature Revisited (32 minutes): Eight featurettes dealing with the legacy of the festival and documentary as well as the restoration of the film.
  • Untold Stories Revisited (73 minutes): If nearly 2 1/2 hours of additional performances weren’t enough on Disc Two, 73 minutes of sixteen additional performances are presented here. If you feel a bit of déjà vu from Disc Two when you watch this batch of performances, don’t worry. A majority of the artists are the same on both discs.Melanie, Joan Baez, Santana, Canned Heat, a Grateful Dead song that runs a mercifully short three minutes, The Who, Jefferson Airplane, Country Joe and the Fish, Crosby, Stills and Nash, Paul Butterfield, Jimi Hendrix and Sha Na Na are featured in this set. Perhaps when the inevitable 50th Anniversary rolls around in 2019, we’ll get Hendrix’s entire two-hour set from the festival.
  • The Museum at Bethel Woods (3 minutes): Because one promo for the museum isn’t enough, here comes another one.

The Woodstock festival turned out to be one of the brightest moments in an otherwise dark decade. The fact that 450,000 young people got together and coexisted peacefully alongside one another through some pretty rough conditions for three days was not only nothing short of a miracle, it was also one of the strongest messages one generation could send to another.

Michael Wadleigh’s documentary is still one of the best concert films ever made, a film that captivates and entertains in equal measures and will continue to do so for a long time to come. Warner’s revised edition of their already terrific 40th Anniversary Edition keeps the solid video and audio transfers, compiles all previous-released bonus material and adds a healthy amount of new stuff as well. It’s a justifiable double-dip for hardcore fans of the festival and film and a no-brainer to anyone who may have missed their chance to purchase the previous edition.

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