Four decades after it was culled from approximately 350,000 feet of 16-millimeter footage, 'Woodstock' remains one of the greatest rock concert films of all time, and one of the most innovative and influential documentaries in the history of cinema. A commercial and critical triumph upon its U.S. release on March 26th, 1970, the 184-minute film (its original theatrical release running time) won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, and was nominated for best film editing and sound. 'Woodstock' saw its reputation confirmed for posterity in 1996, when it was selected for inclusion in the Library of Congress's prestigious National Film Registry, an honor bestowed upon films deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant." The 25th-anniversary Director's Cut (224 minutes) was released in 1994, with 40 minutes of previously unseen performance footage, and it was this version that was originally released on DVD in 1997 as one of Warner's first-ever DVD releases. Now considered the definitive version of the film, the Director's Cut remains the same for this fully remastered DVD and Blu-ray reissue, released June 9th, 2009.
What's amazing about 'Woodstock,' in retrospect, is that the film ever got made at all. When the now legendary three-day-long 'Woodstock Music and Art Fair' was announced as "an Aquarian Expedition" to be held on Max Yasgur's 600-acre dairy farm in Bethel, New York, on August 15th, 16th, and 17th, 1969 (ultimately spilling over into August 18th), arrangements to film the event had barely been finalized. Festival co-producer Artie Kornfeld had made music and film-rights deals with Ahmet Ertegun at Arista Records and with Warner Bros. executive Fred Weintraub, but film production contracts were non-existent when director/cinematographer Michael Wadleigh (who had recently filmed the tumultuous Democratic political convention in Chicago in 1968), producer Bob Maurice, and associate producer Dale Bell began to assemble a team to capture the Woodstock festival on 16-millimeter film. With less than a week to prepare for this massive logistical challenge, Wadleigh, Maurice and Bell recruited a small army of cameramen, editors and assistants to chronicle the festival from start to finish, with up to 16 Éclair NPR cameras running at any given time. (It's a testament to their talent-scouting skills that the crew of 'Woodstock' included several now-prominent filmmakers at the beginning of their stellar careers, including editor Thelma Schoonmaker, assistant director and co-editor Martin Scorsese, cinematographer Richard Pearce, production manager Lewis Teague, additional photographer Richard Chew and others.) While Wadleigh and his core camera crew focused on the musical performances, additional crews roamed the expansive festival site gathering the incidental documentary material that would ultimately provide the film's historical (and timeless) sense of people, place, and atmosphere. From a smiling nun flashing a "peace" sign to the good-natured encounter with the "Port-o-San Man," these sequences offer priceless counterpoints to the on-stage performances, resulting in a fully-immersive, you-are-there experience.
From the outset, Wadleigh had ambitious intentions for 'Woodstock,' seizing the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to innovatively film what was fast becoming the largest public gathering in history (with over 400,000 in attendance), and the single most symbolic event in the history of the '60s flower-powered counterculture. Conserving precious rolls of film was a constant problem, and Wadleigh's fast-moving camera crews had to make difficult decisions about what to film and what not to film, while helicopters delivered much-needed rolls of raw film stock throughout the festival weekend. In post-production, Wadleigh's editing choices favored performances that best expressed the significance of Woodstock and the peace movement in general, regardless of the prominence of the songs or musicians. To make maximum use of nearly 120 miles of 16mm footage and countless hours of 8-track sound recording, Wadleigh employed variable image ratios and editing techniques, with image size ranging from the classic Hollywood "Academy ratio" (1.33:1) to the 2.4:1 widescreen ratio required to accommodate split-screen and triple-image composites. (As Wadleigh notes in one of the featurettes, this multi-image editing allowed the use of approximately eight hours of footage in a three-hour film.)
The stylistic and editorial innovations of 'Woodstock' made it an instant hit with critics and audiences alike, and 40 years later the film is still universally hailed as an enduring classic in the rock-doc genre and a pivotal milestone of cinema verité. The film succeeds on every possible level, most importantly as a document of riveting verisimilitude, reminding all of us, young or old, that the state of idealism known as the "Woodstock Nation" existed in its purest state during a three-day festival of peace and music that can be emulated but never repeated. 'Woodstock' is simultaneously timeless and inseparable from its time.
With the release of this exceptional two-disc Blu-ray Ultimate Collector's Edition, 'Woodstock: The Director's Cut' looks and sounds better than ever before, with new and never-before-seen material (in high-def and standard-def) that makes it the definitive, must-have version of what many still consider to be the ultimate rock-concert movie.
By any rational standard, 'Woodstock' poses a special challenge in terms of preserving image quality, and then assessing that preservation in its high-def incarnation. Three different 16mm film stocks were used (to accommodate daytime, night-time, and variable-weather shooting conditions), resulting in a broad spectrum of image quality from pitch-black and extremely grainy to crisp and colorful clarity. Theatrically released in 70mm, the film used a combination of standard 1.85:1 image ratio for single-image scenes and 2.20:1 widescreen framing to accommodate split-screen and triple-image composites. This Blu-ray release carefully preserves the variable image sizes as they were intended to be seen, with black bars of varying sizes, either on the sides or top and bottom, depending on the variable aspect ratios. The result, as always, is that 'Woodstock' is one of the most dynamic viewing experiences ever released on DVD or Blu-ray, owing to the constantly changing size and configuration of images.
The newly remastered 224-minute director's cut (presented without interruption on the disc labeled "Movie") looks absolutely beautiful in 1080p/VC-1, encoded from a 2k-scan of original 16mm film elements, and enhanced for 16x9 with the film's original variable aspect ratios of 1.85 and 2.20 fully preserved. (It's worth noting that the video specs listed on the plastic outer box-sleeve indicate a 2.4:1 ratio, while most sources list the widescreen images as being in 2.20:1, so this is possibly a typographical error.) Black levels are superb throughout, and the film's color palette appears to be more accurate than ever before, with a vivid display of colors (especially in the clothing of festival attendees and performers) that are utterly devoid of the fuzziness and/or blooming that plagued the notoriously awful VHS releases of the past. And while 'Woodstock' can only benefit from high-def to a limited degree (given the limitations of the source material), it's safe to say that this Blu-ray release presents 'Woodstock' in its best-ever condition, from image clarity and definition to authentic preservation of color.
On the "extras" disc of bonus features, video specs run the gamut from 1080p (for the previously unseen concert footage) to 1080i high def and 480i or 480p standard-def, depending on the source material.
Once again, it's somewhat miraculous that 'Woodstock' sounds as good as it does, given the challenge of recording the three-day event with analog 8-track equipment (or more accurately 7-track, since the 8th track was devoted to the electronic synch-track for the 16mm-cameras). On Blu-ray, the film's award-winning soundtrack has been masterfully converted to a Dolby TrueHD 5.1-channel lossless mix, with the other option being Dolby Digital 5.1. Considering the variable quality of the original 8-track recordings (due to different microphone set-ups, band configurations etc.) the resulting sound is surprisingly robust and accurate, with musical performances well-balanced on the front and center channels, and audience noise and atmospheric ambience subtly preserved in the rear-channel surrounds. Even when you account for the technical shortcomings of the original recordings, the overall effect is very pleasing, since it more closely approximates the sonic quality of an outdoor concert.
Exclusive to this Blu-ray release (and presented under the menu heading "Woodstock: Untold Stories") is the option to customize a personal playlist using 18 never-before-seen concert performances (all remastered in 1080p and Dolby Digital 5.1) that are included on the "Extras" disc. Several of these are previously unseen performances by musicians who appeared in 'Woodstock' (Joan Baez, Santana, Canned Heat, The Who, Joe Cocker, and more) while others (Paul Butterfield, Johnny Winter, Mountain, and the Grateful Dead) were cut from the original film entirely, so their Woodstock presence is being seen here for the very first time. Using an easily navigated menu, users can arrange these 18 songs in any order they prefer, and the customizable playlist can be reset and re-organized at any time. These 18 performances total a little over two hours (using the "Play All" option), and the Grateful Dead's "Turn on Your Love Light" is a marathon jam lasting just under 38 minutes!
Also listed under "Untold Stories" are two brief clips of documentary footage titled "Opening of Festival" (3:21) and "Closing of Festival" (1:20) that are essentially self-explanatory: The former shows "the calm before the storm," as Woodstock organizers prepare the concert site as the first attendees begin to arrive; the latter shows the "apocalyptic" aftermath of the Woodstock site as seen at the end of the film – a muddy, trampled, garbage-laden field of debris with hippie stragglers wandering about. (Both clips are in 1080p, 1.33:1 image and Dolby Digital 5.1.)
For pop-cultural history buffs, the comprehensive featurette gallery titled "Woodstock: From Festival to Feature" consists of 21 separate featurettes (total running time: 76:40), each addressing a different aspect of 'Woodstock''s production in chronological order, from the decision to use lightweight Éclair cameras to the provision of food and services by members of the legendary Hog farm commune, and director Michael Wadleigh's 1970 appearance on Hugh Hefner's TV series "Playboy After Dark," with Hefner (accompanied by a throng of party guests including then-Playmate girlfriend Barbi Benton) gushing over Wadleigh's cinematic achievement. Presented in 1080p and 1.78:1 image ratio with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio, most of the featurettes chronicle the various challenges of 'Woodstock''s production and post-production, featuring all-new interviews with the primary filmmakers, promoters and performers including Wadleigh, associate producer Dale Bell, festival promoter/producer Michael Lang, editor Thelma Schoonmaker, assistant director/editor Martin Scorsese. Reflections and recollections from musicians include members of Ten Years After, Santana and Jefferson Airplane, with additional observations by Johnny Winter, Grace Slick, and several others.
Of lesser interest, on the "extras" disc, is a dated 480i promotional video (4:33) titled "The Museum at Bethel Woods: The Story of the Sixties and Woodstock," in which host/narrator Vernon Reid (from Living Color) sings the praises of the hippie-generation museum located near the Woodstock festival site. The museum is clearly more interesting than the video.
The Packaging + Extra Goodies
Depending on your tolerance for this kind of thing, the semi-lavish packaging of the 'Ultimate Collector's Edition" will strike you as quaintly nostalgic or completely unnecessary; either way it's basically a bunch of trinkets and clutter. The layered packaging is designed to resemble 1969-vintage hippie clothing, and it's identical for both the 3-disc DVD and 2-disc Blu-ray releases of 'Woodstock.' The outer package is basically a clear-plastic protection box containing a fringed-leather buckskin "jacket," which in turn serves as a slipcase for the inner "hippie shirt" box containing the contents of the set. Inside that sturdy paper-board box is the two-disc Blu-ray case and a handful of stuff that nobody really needs. There's a 3x5-inch Lucite display featuring three lenticular images from 'Woodstock' (it's basically a paperweight, folks); a 5x7-inch reprint of LIFE magazine's commemorative 'Woodstock' edition from 1969; a circular iron-on Woodstock patch (attached to and easily removable from the fringe-leather "jacket"); a handy Woodstock fact sheet with trivia and statistics related to the festival; and reproductions of Woodstock memorabilia including hand-written notes from festival attendees and a three-day admission ticket (original price: $24 for all three days); and finally, a two-sided chapter guide listing the entire contents of the two-disc set.
It's safe to say that the Blu-ray edition of 'Woodstock' will remain the best, most definitive home-video version for many years to come. Indeed, it's hard to imagine how the film could be improved any further, since the source materials don't lend themselves to any significant advances in image clarity or sound reproduction. When you consider the challenging conditions faced by the filmmakers, and the scale of their achievement in terms of capturing this pivotal milestone in pop-cultural history, the Blu-ray "Ultimate Collector's Edition" qualifies as a tribute to their work and a minor miracle of HD presentation. And because this is a film that can be repeatedly watched and appreciated on a number of levels, this is definitely a Blu-ray purchase that can be recommended without reservation. Buy it.