PBS’ ‘Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation’ recalls a transcendent moment in culture
The 1969 Woodstock Festival was an event so fraught with problems it could have spun off into chaos at any one of dozens of junctures. Instead, 500,000 attendees, promoters, staff, musicians and others pulled together in a sense of community and made it one of the transcendent cultural happenings of the 20th century. And as its 50th anniversary approaches, a new PBS documentary recalls that time.
“Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation,” a two-hour “American Experience” film airing Tuesday, Aug. 6 (check local listings), looks not at the music and the musicians who performed at that upstate New York concert on Aug. 15-18, 1969, but at the myriad stories in the crowd and behind the scenes through footage and interviews with attendees, promoters and others.
The odds were against it from the getgo. One town had banned the concert after construction was already underway, forcing promoters to find another site, eventually settling on Max Yasgur’s farm in nearby Bethel. Then there were shortages of food, sanitary and medical facilities and staff, resulting in thousands of concertgoers walking in without paying. Surrounding roads were choked with traffic and the locals were not amused.
But instead of tensions boiling over and fights breaking out, everyone kept a cool head, helped their neighbor and made the show the legendary event it became.
There’s a reason they became known as the Woodstock Generation.
“I honestly don’t think that could’ve happened,” says Barak Goodman, the film’s director, “if not for the fact that it’s 1969 and these young people had been conditioned for a while to buy into this ethic and this notion of sharing and communitarianism and a kind of rejection of materialism and so on.
“And people talk about the miracle of Woodstock,” he continues, “how it was that that event stayed peaceful, stayed relatively injury-free and tragedy-free even amid the crazy chaos of the whole thing. And I put it down to the values that that generation that by that time honed ... this sense of helping each other out and living a different kind of life.”
And that manifested itself in numerous ways, from the “freak-out tents” for those having bad LSD trips to the en-masse meals made from local oats, milk and yogurt that were passed out to famished hippies.
Even the promoters got in the spirit, making it a free concert when it became evident there was no way of stemming the flow of non-paying clientele. Initially, they lost millions and flirted with bankruptcy until they were rescued by uncollected ticket revenue, the sale of their stake in the original Woodstock documentary and other deals.
“Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation,” a two-hour “American Experience” film, airs Tuesday on PBS (check local listings).