More than a concert film, Woodstock captures the zenith of the hippie era—a period that began its decline only a few months later, after the Rolling Stones’s disastrous concert at Altamont in December 1969 (as shown in the documentary Gimme Shelter). Director Michael Wadleigh does an excellent job capturing the beauty and the mayhem of the festival. Though figures vary, it’s believed as many as half a million people attended Woodstock, and while it brought many music acts onto the same stage, the event was a disaster for the local community. Spread throughout the film are interviews with local townspeople complaining about how they’ve been negatively impacted, relating anecdotes about their encounters with the incoming hive of hippies. There’s also the predictable pontificating from concertgoers about peace and love.
Spread over two DVDs, this 40th anniversary edition of the four-hour director’s cut (the theatrical version has never been released on DVD) includes legendary performances by Jimi Hendrix, Joe Cocker, Canned Heat, and Country Joe and the Fish in quality that have never looked or sounded better. While the video presentation is great, the audio restoration is sure to be a bone of contention for many. Because some portions were either faintly recorded or not picked up at all, audio engineer Eddie Kramer had to get inventive. Taking great pains to create the perfect 5.1 mix, Kramer tracked down musicians—or, failing that, relatives of those musicians—who played at Woodstock and asked them to retrack their missing piece of music. It was simply an opportunity to fill out certain areas in the film. Some may see this as trifling with history, but the additions are only to help bring out the composition that was already there. Otherwise, there have been no dramatic overdubs or changes to the original recording.
Captured in 16mm, there are limits to how clear this footage will ever be and this is likely as good as it gets. A majority of the film is presented in picture-box format and intercut with split-screen shots to fill the full widescreen frame. It’s a clever method to utilize as much of the filmed footage as possible. The audio, as expected, is terrific. Nicely balanced in 5.1 and with plenty of kick. The only ironic twist is that while the audio sounds as though it were recorded yesterday, the footage still shows signs of its age.
The two-disc set is very disappointing in the extras department. Considering how much filler in the form of unnecessary trinkets the three-disc "ultimate" version comes with-to justify its $60 price tag-it would have been great if Warner released a toned-down "ultimate" version with just the three discs and none of the kitschy toys. Instead, we’re given this two-disc "special edition" that only includes one bonus featurette: a poorly made infomercial for the Woodstock museum in Bethel, New York. Given that the second disc in this set is only 4GB in size, there was still plenty of room to include at least some bonus material (perhaps a featurette detailing the audio restoration?). Instead, the best bonus features are saved for the "ultimate" set and those looking for a less expensive and less obnoxious alternative for the extra DVD content are left without an option.
Those interested in seeing 18 bonus performances and a making-of documentary will have to spring for the much more expensive three-disc set. Those who are only interested in watching the film should go for this barebones two-disc version for its superior audio/video quality to the previous DVD release.