It could have been the Fyre Fest of 1969.
They ran out of food and medical supplies. Because there were no gates, there was no way to take tickets. There was no parking. Nearly half a million concertgoers left the roads so clogged, musicians had to be helicoptered in.
Had the organizers cared about making money (they went broke), had the concertgoers cared about what they ate (anything donated) or where they slept (right where they stood), it would have been a disaster. Instead, an overcrowded dairy farm in upstate New York became a three-day phenomenon frozen in time where counterculture ideals became reality.
“Whatever made Woodstock Woodstock did not happen on the stage — it happened out in that crowd,” says director Barak Goodman, whose documentary film “Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation” premieres on PBS Tuesday in advance of the festival’s 50th anniversary this month.
While Michael Wadleigh’s classic 1970 concert documentary, “Woodstock,” focused on the musicians, the stars of Goodman’s film are the audience. We hear from them in voice-over layered atop colorful archival footage.
In a time before hashtags, “likes,” and followers, this was a generation stunned to find hundreds of thousands of like-minded hippies.
“There were many such concerts at the time, but there’s never been [another] with the magic of Woodstock. Whatever that was, was yet to be understood. That’s why we embarked on this film,” says Goodman, 55.
Q. What was the magic that made Woodstock Woodstock?
A. What Woodstock was ultimately about, is the ideals and the slogans of the ’60s counterculture movement, peace and love, were manifested. That concert could’ve gone south and devolved into chaos very easily. The fact that it didn’t is because of the values that this group of people espoused. Even though they were young, they embraced a new way of thinking about the world. They put that into practice. They proved that “peace and love” was more than just a slogan. That their vision, a communitarian approach to life, was actually real — it wasn’t a pie-in-the-sky ideal.
Q. I couldn’t believe how many things went wrong. It all worked out, really, because of the ideals people had.
A. Right. The organizers of the festival may have been in over their heads and unprepared. But when the slow-motion disaster started to happen, instead of panicking or putting money ahead of these kids, these organizers went with it. They said, “There’s something here that’s bigger than us. It’s not about the money anymore.” And from that moment on, when they declared it a free concert, all the way to the end of the concert, they made a series of good decisions that kept the audience OK.
Q. One word people kept saying over and over is “beautiful.”
A. Yeah. And it’s true. It was as ugly a situation as you could imagine, in terms of comfort. It wasn’t beautiful. But it became beautiful because of the way people handled it. The peacefulness, acceptance, and sharing transcended what would have otherwise been a very un-beautiful situation.
And the musicians contributed: Look how Richie Havens steps forward when the crowd is restless. There’s nobody there to play. He’s not supposed to go on; they ask him to go on; he begs them not to put him in. He has to fill a three-hour hole and ends up making up songs. “Freedom” ends up being one of the iconic songs of the festival — he just made it up on the stage. That’s the kind of thing that kept happening. These little miracles.
Another is when the food runs out, the surrounding communities go into their pantries and feed the hungry kids. Again and again, people step up, and it ends up being beautiful.
Q. I love that you don’t use talking heads, just archival footage. Was that a format you had in mind from the beginning?
A. Not necessarily from the very beginning, but once we had the archival footage from Warner Brothers, and it was so beautiful, we didn’t think it was smart to break away from that. We wanted to keep people immersed in the concert. We thought septuagenarian hippies would be a distraction. We decided, ultimately, not do any interviews on camera. It doesn’t really matter who’s talking — it was the collective voice of the audience that was important.
Q. What were some favorite aspects you learned in making this?
A. I’m proud of the way we focused on John [Roberts] and Joel [Rosenman], the two would-be hippie capitalists and their transformation from young men who want to strike it rich with Woodstock, to two heroes who make this happen and keep it peaceful and go bankrupt in the process. That transformation speaks to the spirit of Woodstock like nothing else does.
Q. What is the cultural impact of Woodstock? Why do we still look back to that concert 50 years later?
A. I think part of it’s nostalgia for a period of time where there was such a strong, idealistic ethic. I think also Woodstock has lived on in the people who were there. What happened there crystallized something in those young people, or gave them the new perspective that they carried forward into their lives. Again and again we hear from people now in their 70s who say Woodstock is still alive in them. They keep it alive
Q. Do you think there could be another event like this today, or was it just one moment in time?
A. It’s funny, I asked my 21-year-old son after seeing the movie whether he thought it could ever happen. He pulled out his cellphone and said, “No, I don’t think so.” And what he was saying is part of what made Woodstock Woodstock is the fact kids were isolated. They were cut off. Nowadays, with cellphones, it wouldn’t quite be the same experience. The other part is that I don’t think you can plan for a Woodstock. It happened because it was spontaneous. The particular circumstances of Woodstock were so unique, I doubt we’ll see quite the same thing again. But you never can tell.
Q. What would you hope a new generation would get out of watching this?
A. I hope they’d be inspired, like I was inspired, by what kids are capable of. These kids didn’t set out to change the world, but they did change the world in a significant way by demonstrating that a new way of living was possible. It was a divided, ugly time; people forget how violent a time it was. There’s a quote in the film where [an attendee] says: “This was a new city. This was our city.” And what he meant was, this was a new way of living. They showed it. I do hope younger people see this film because it’s a demonstration of the possibilities of collective action.
WOODSTOCK: THREE DAYS THAT DEFINED A GENERATION
On WGBH-2, Aug. 6 at 9 p.m.
Interview was edited and condensed. Lauren Daley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.