MDFF Exclusive: Woodstock at Fifty – From Rock Festival to Rock Doc

Article by Aidan Prewett

It’s now been fifty years since the 1960’s drew to a close. Woodstock defined that moment in history. The world has never seen anything quite like it since. 

The decade itself set the preconditions that allowed Woodstock to take place. If John F. Kennedy had lived, the world of today might have ended up a very different place. The Vietnam war may have ended much sooner. We might still have Bobby and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. – alive and in their 90’s. But after that first assassination, Lyndon Johnson escalates the conflict in Vietnam. By 1968, student riots against this post-World War II establishment are erupting in Paris and soon spread around the world. The Chicago Democratic National Convention is interrupted by fervent protests and police brutality. Nixon is elected. By early 1969, the My Lai massacre comes to light. The subsequent trial of an American officer for 109 Vietnamese civilian deaths pushes the anti-war movement into the global spotlight. 

And then – three days of peace and music. Woodstock was a Vietnam protest. The single largest anti-war movement in history. For many of the attendees, their thoughts were with their friends and family posted overseas, awaiting their own version of the apocalypse. So the real miracle of Woodstock was not simply that 456,000 people descended on a small town in upstate New York. The miracle was that in a climate that had been so recently saturated with extreme violence, almost none occurred at the festival. 

Violence did occur at the Altamont Speedway Free Concert later that year. What had been marketed as a kind of Woodstock for the West Coast quickly turned ugly and resulted in four deaths – one, a stabbing in front of the Rolling Stones’ stage. Societal tensions, exacerbated throughout the 1960’s, were coming to a head. And in the ‘60’s, with the spectre of a mushroom cloud hanging in the collective consciousness, every concert could be your last. Every mass gathering could become a final resting place. A venue for the end of the world.

The 2019 cut of my documentary Woodstock at Fifty: A Venue for the End of the World is playing at the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival in celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of Woodstock, and will feature a live Q&A with the announcer of the original festival, Chip Monck. I am also thrilled to announce the publication of my book, Woodstock at Fifty: Anatomy of a Revolution, which deals with these themes on a whole new level. The book will be available in August through Crows Nest/Political Animal (Chicago/Toronto).

Featuring heavily in both the film and the book are documentary luminaries D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus, Dick Cavett, Ian Anderson (Jethro Tull), Michael Shrieve (Santana) and Joe McDonald (Country Joe & the Fish), among many others.

The interviews in this film were conducted because I wanted to know what it felt like to be there. At Hendrix’s feet during the Star Spangled Banner. In Mick Jagger’s dressing room after Altamont. Alone in the Oval Office with JFK. Backstage with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. before the March On Washington. Ours friends throughout this film know exactly what these situations feel like. These events formed major turning points in their lives. And our lives too.

Omnipresent through all these events was the concept of the crowd. An audience, tuned in and turned on to everything through their television sets – aware now more than ever before of the world outside their own community. Television was emerging from its infancy, and the overwhelming popularity of the medium, with limited channels, created opportunities for widespread publicity. If an event was covered on television, it drew a crowd.

It turns out crowd behaviour is a topic of interest for many performers. The way that crowds might exhibit a kind of collective consciousness or become a singular entity. These crowds started to form around issues, not just performances – and audiences began to work in some strangely cooperative ways, like what happened at Woodstock. Altamont became the polar opposite, despite its promotion as a peaceful festival and the precedent set by Woodstock. Why did these festivals turn out so differently? How did the large-scale festival culture that began at Woodstock affect the world we live in now? Is there such a difference between a political crowd and an audience for a musical performance? And how can a performer take command of their audience? This film has been compiled in the hopes that it holds some lessons from the 60’s for today’s bizarre political landscape.

The original cut of A Venue for the End of the World was distributed in the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election. The release date was perfect – in a year when Clinton and Trump dominated the headlines, I was hoping this would draw parallels and direct viewers to the polls with a stronger sense of the political influence on the collective consciousness. There are even stronger parallels today. But now, even our consciousness is saturated by Trump. He’s everywhere. The interviews in this film provide some perspective on the current situation simply because they don’t draw that reference. It’s refreshing to examine this material without getting bogged down in the latest twitterstorm. It feels good to ignore him. But if you choose to relate the enclosed material to Trump – as Nixon would say – that is your right.

A Venue for the End of the World began its long journey to the screen back in 2007 at Melbourne’s Rod Laver Arena – a concert with Pink Floyd emissary Roger Waters. The opening to the stadium show was staged as a kind of fascist rally, complete with red arm bands and vertical banners among the Floyd paraphernalia. The sequence ended with Mr. Waters machine-gunning the front row as a half-scale Messerschmitt exploded in flames behind him. The stadium was on their feet cheering, and I was completely swept up in it. Many in the audience, myself included, literally screamed for blood when prompted by Waters, in his black trench coat and jack-boots. It was only when the lights came up for an interval that I was hit by the gravity of what had just happened. 15,000 people in a room had just willingly taken part in a re-enactment of a Nuremberg rally. I had been so enamored by the presence on-stage of my hero, that I – and many others – had ecstatically bought into an experience that was sickening when examined under a non-theatrical light. The point Mr. Waters was making is where Venue begins. How far can theatrics and a powerful personality take us? And is there any way to stand up to that kind of power when we realise it’s being misused? 

The project rattled around in between other films for several years, until I found myself interviewing Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson. I wanted to properly test the water with this project and so, as part of a routine junket-style interview, I began by asking Mr. Anderson about the feeling of power on stage. He immediately brought up the Nazis. What we were told would be a ‘maximum ten-minute interview’ quickly turned into 28 minutes of gold, covering everything from the Nuremberg rallies to the Occupy movement, and every rock concert that went sour in between. By the time the interview was over, I knew that this was a film that wanted to be made. And it was going to be stranger and more personal than I first thought. We had started our journey into the bizarre, overlapping world of politics and performance. 

Many years prior, I had the pleasure of meeting Joe Cocker. I was one of many fans waiting outside the stage door of Hamer Hall in Melbourne. As the crowd jostled for autographs, there was an odd silence. I decided to break it. “What was Woodstock like, Joe?” He laughed. “Oh, that was a long time ago…” 

That was my first experience of a stage door. Just knowing that these doors exist was an excellent starting point in my documentary journey. If there’s a stage door, there must be people who are allowed to go through it.

When we lost Joe in 2014 I pulled out my Woodstock Blu-ray and skipped to Joe’s scene. When With A Little Help From My Friends reached its climax, I couldn’t stop. I had places to be, but I had to finish watching the entire film. I was taken back to the first time I saw the film. I was a high school misfit who happened to catch the movie late one night while channel-surfing for art-house nudity. The documentary started at two AM. No ads. It ended at five. I went to bed knowing my life had changed course. I was going to be a rock star. Or maybe even a documentary filmmaker.

Among many highlights – I was already a Hendrix fan – were Joe Cocker and Michael Shrieve. This music was a complete surprise, a departure from any style or arrangement that I’d come across before. I was hooked. I went to school the following Monday raving about Joe Cocker. My friends were nonplussed – “of course we know who Joe Cocker is, our parents love him”. But for me, this was a totally new world, exciting and dangerous but in a strange kind of way that parents would have trouble disapproving of without being hypocritical.

It’s always saddening to see the obituaries of our musician friends who we’ve grown up with throughout our lives. They didn’t know who we were as individuals, but they knew us, and we knew them. We were their collective – their followers. They reached out to us through their various media. The technological advances of the twentieth century afforded all of us to be touched by greatness.

I wanted to track down some of these heroes, so I found myself at Melbourne’s VCA School of Film & Television learning interview techniques and documentary form & structure. Soon enough, I was on the road for this feature documentary. The first people I wanted to interview were the Woodstock Generation. And they’re a generous bunch. Fascinating new stories came to light with every interview and I found that the film was starting to lead me places I had never considered going. Suddenly we found ourselves being let in on trade secrets and uncovering incredible pieces of history that might get lost in projects of a more orthodox nature. 

The heroes in this film, who created and documented the events of the late ‘60’s, are mostly approaching 80 years old. These people are humble souls who have continued to espouse the peaceful message of Woodstock throughout their lives. These people created not just an event but forged their own mark on the 20th century. They became the Woodstock Nation. 

With the approaching 50th anniversary of Woodstock, Melbourne Documentary Film Festival will present a special cut of the multi-award winning documentary A Venue for the End of the World, featuring extended interviews with original Woodstock performers, crew and high-profile commentators. This very special event will feature a live Q&A with famed Woodstock announcer & lighting designer Chip Monck. Details here.

2 thoughts on “MDFF Exclusive: Woodstock at Fifty – From Rock Festival to Rock Doc

  1. Please bring this to Los Angeles! I have the original Woodstock film doc and am intrigued by all things “Woodstock” (and the ‘60s). ☮️

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