50 years after nearly a half million people descended on a New York dairy farm for the three-day Woodstock Music and Arts Fair, the event has taken on a near-mythical place in our collective imagination, one that’s rooted far more in nostalgia than reality. Creating Woodstock is a feature-length documentary that goes beyond the overly-enchanted impressions the festival has garnered over the years, examining some of the less glamorous aspects of the monumental happening that nonetheless remains the defining event of a generation.
A drummer and Woodstock attendee, Emmy Award-winning TV producer Mick Richards wrote and directed the film. The story unfolds through rare archival material and three decades’ worth of interviews with the organizers, many who have since passed away. Judging by the models of the computers in the interviews, a lot of the recordings are on the older side, which makes the film feel as though it’s been around awhile, even though it’s only being released now. There’s also a lot of talking, which makes it more likely to appeal to die-hard music-industry geeks and rock historians than the average layperson. It almost feels like Creating Woodstock is pieced together from the recollections and reminiscences of wistful relatives who are continuously reliving the 72 hours between August 15-17, 1969. Still, what they have to say is interesting.
Spoiler alert: By all accounts, Woodstock had all the defining characteristics of a potential disaster. The organizers had trouble securing a venue until Max and Miriam Yasgur offered their property. Then, with barely a month at their disposal, roughly a thousand people hurriedly worked on the festival’s infrastructure—preparing roads, digging wells, and installing electricity. Most days, it rained.
Originally intended only for about 20,000 people, Woodstock eventually required 500-plus acres for parking alone. Hundreds of thousands of audience members braved 20-mile traffic jams and a five-mile hike just to arrive to the festival, which lawmakers threatened to shut down by sending in the National Guard.
Eventually, the organizers pulled it off. The permit came through only hours before the event officially began, and though a health inspector was called to the scene, because he brought his 15-year-old daughter who promptly disappeared, he went looking for her over the course of three days and never got around to inspecting.
Money is one of Creating Woodstock‘s recurring themes. Since the spirit was one of positive energy and goodwill, the festival went from being a ticketed festival to a free event. Even so, the film reveals that the Who wouldn’t play onstage until they got paid in cash, and at $35,000, Jimi Hendrix was the highest paid act, though he had trouble getting in. The rain fell and the stage started to slide down the hill, but Hendrix continued playing into the morning after what was supposed to be the end of the festival.
Creating Woodstock doesn’t end there. Interviewees look back on the aftermath as well, including the massive cleanup effort, the dicey finances, the “tremendous smell,” and even a dead body or two.
While it’s very much a behind-the-scenes look at the festival, Creating Woodstock is full of interesting tidbits that make for worthwhile viewing. Plus now, a half century later, Woodstock’s role in American history is even more apparent, and therein lies the real value of the film. As Arlo Guthrie says in the documentary, “It’s a singular event in history.”