Martin Scorsese on the Woodstock Festival
His film rocked the world, but it wasn't all peace and love, he reveals in a new book that looks at the music event.
My perspective on Woodstock is . . . limited. How limited? Well, for most of that long weekend in August 1969, I was confined to a platform about 9ft wide, just to the right of the stage, just below a bank of amplifiers, fiercely concentrating on the musicians and their performances. I was to be one of the Woodstock film's editors, and my job was to keep an eye out for images we would need when we started to put it together. We had seven cameramen working every performance and, to the degree that I could communicate with them (surprisingly well, all hardships considered), I was trying to direct their attention to activity they could not perceive, since their eyes were glued to their viewfinders.
There were, from time to time, more pressing issues - such as trying to stay upright in that tiny space jammed with people. All of us were dependent on one another for our wellbeing. If someone had shoved me out of the way, I could have been knocked off that platform. But that never happened - not to any of us. There was no way to get food or go to the bathroom. Probably the best hamburger I ever had was courtesy of Arthur Barron, the documentary-maker, who somehow got a bag up to us during the Friday-night concert.
I almost never saw the audience, so concentrated was I on the action on stage. It was simply a restive - potentially volatile - presence behind us. Every once in a while, I would catch a glimpse of Michael Wadleigh, the director, wielding his camera, headphones askew, trying to stay in touch with the other cameramen by radio microphone. Mostly, we were getting what we could get, yet, it seems to me, we were curiously (maybe youthfully) confident that we would have something good to take back to New York.
Which is where this adventure began. Wadleigh and I had met at the NYU film school, and he had shot the 16mm black-and-white footage for my first feature, Who's That Knocking at My Door? In the late 1960s, a group of us were sharing editing rooms on West 86th Street, in Manhattan. I was working on my film, Jim McBride was next door, editing David Holzman's Diary, while Wadleigh and Thelma Schoonmaker (later to become my editor) were working on various documentary projects. We were all, naturally, passionate about film-making, but Wadleigh and I were equally passionate about rock music. I thought then, and I still think, that it formed the score for many of our lives; we moved through the days to its swaggering rhythms. And Wadleigh and I were already feeling nostalgic about the pioneer rockers of the 1950s - Fats Domino, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry - whose work was no longer being played very much. We got the idea of staging a concert featuring them and their music, which we would film. Then we began hearing rumours about the Woodstock concert. It soon became clear it was going to include probably the greatest gathering of popular musicians ever assembled. Wadleigh decided to go upstate to see if it might be a model for what we wanted to do. We began getting calls from him saying we should make our film about this set of concerts, instead.
Aside from our shared passion for music, none of us - McBride excepted - was what you would call a hipster, though Wadleigh had grown a significant beard before he attended Woodstock. When I first met him, I thought he looked like one of the Four Freshmen: a trim, short-haired, respectable-looking young man from the Midwest, in a button-down shirt. I had yet to acquire my first pair of jeans; I guess you could call my style graduate-school plain. And I was definitely not a country person. Afflicted with asthma, I was allergic to just about everything nature had to offer. Yet there we all were, hungry, exhausted, struggling with the fact that the first priority among Woodstock's promoters was not the wellbeing of the film-makers.
They had more pressing problems to contend with. I don't know how many people they expected to turn up that weekend, but not half a million. And they were overwhelmed at every level: food, sanitation, medical staff. Some of the lighting towers threatened to collapse and the grounds were turning into a sea of mud. It's no mystery why such a multitude made their way to Woodstock: it was the promise of hearing so many great musicians in one place, in one short span of time. To some, it may be a mystery why, from beginning to end, Woodstock remained a peaceful gathering. I mean, anything could have gone wrong at any second. Sometimes, I'd glance back and wonder: "What if something goes crazy? What if one of the drugs doesn't work, or works too well, and they decide to charge the stage?" Today, people sentimentalise the Woodstock spirit, but I do think it contained the never-fused elements of something more threatening.
I think it helped - it certainly helped me - that as early as the Friday-night concert, the idea that we were involved with something more than a rock concert, that we might be involved in a truly historic event, began to occur to some of us. By Saturday night, to borrow a cliché, "the whole world was watching"; Woodstock was all over television and the rest of the press. I think it's possible that a lot of people in the audience wanted to enforce a contrast between this peaceful assembly and the riotous events a year earlier at the Democratic convention in Chicago.
But we, the film-makers, were not home free. Yes, John Calley, part of the new management team at Warner Bros, had agreed to cover the costs of the documentary's camera rentals and film stock - a sum he later remembered as about $15,000, or, as he put it, "sort of lunch in Las Vegas". He also remembered thinking that, if we struck out, he could recoup that modest sum just by selling what we shot as stock footage to documentaries in the future. But funding to complete the film was not guaranteed. I remember seeing Bob Maurice, our producer, with a phone to his ear, telling people - as the music blared behind him - that this was shaping up as a historic event and that they would be fools not to get in on it. I also remember Thelma, stuck at the lighting console, alternately yelling at and cajoling Chip Monck, who was a celebrated concert lighting designer, to pour more light on the stage, so we could capture viewable images of the performers. He was the pioneer genius of rock-concert lighting - and he didn't want to spoil his carefully calculated effects just to oblige a bunch of youthful film-makers.
So, Woodstock the movie was, on a lot of levels, a huge, closely run gamble. Shoots like this one nearly always are, but that was especially so in those days, when rock concerts were not the accepted genre that they now are. From the beginning, there had been talk - especially from Wadleigh, as I recall - of using a lot of split-screen imagery in the film. There was a simultaneity about Woodstock, a sense of many things going on at once, that lent itself to this approach. A large open space above a pool hall, also near West 86th, had been rented so the raw Woodstock footage could be projected on the wall. The material from six or more cameras could be shown simultaneously on that wall. There was just something viscerally exciting about all that film running through the projectors at once. It became the stylistic hallmark of the movie; more important, by giving equal time to performance and crowd, it enabled Wadleigh to re-create the entire experience for the movie audience. He could not have done that with a purely linear movie.
There was enough usable material for a seven-hour film, which is why, in its various home-video incarnations, Woodstock has shape-shifted quite a bit over the years, without ever betraying its essence. But something more curious has happened over those 40 years. I think that without the film, the concert would not be more than a footnote to the social and cultural history of the 1960s - represented by a still photo in a picture book, a line or two in the history books. What the movie did, and continues to do, is distil the Woodstock experience, and, more important, keep it vibrant and alive. The footnote has become a touchstone, a way for my generation to remind ourselves of who we were then and to measure the road we have travelled since. It has also been, more significantly, a way for newer generations to get in touch with the chaotic spirit of the 1960s. Or rather, a part of that spirit: the happier part.
© Martin Scorsese 2009