- The Washington Times - Friday, August 14, 2009

A single newspaper headline summed up what many in the establishment felt about the Woodstock Music & Art Fair, then taking place on a dairy farm in upstate New York: “Hippies Mired in Sea of Mud” the New York Daily News gloated in large type on Aug. 17, 1969.

Barnard Collier, then a New York Times reporter, recounts in “Woodstock: Now and Then” — a theatrical-quality, two-hour documentary premiering tonight at 9 on VH1 and VH1 Classic and rebroadcast Monday night at 8 on the History Channel — that he had to fight tooth and nail to stop his prejudiced editors from printing a wrongheaded account of the now-legendary festival that painted it as an unmitigated disaster.

The times, they have a-changed.

Woodstock, long the ultimate symbol of the divide between the two sides of the culture wars, has, on its 40th anniversary, lost much of its power to polarize.

The nation’s first post-Woodstock Generation president is in the White House, and efforts in the 2008 campaign to link symbolically President Obama with the political violence of ‘60s radical Bill Ayers never gained much traction. The convergence of American countercultural and commercial sensibilities has become almost a cliche, thanks to David Brooks’ 2000 best-seller “Bobos in Paradise.” And according to the authors of a just-released Pew Research Center poll, today’s “generation gap is a much more subdued affair than the one that raged in the 1960s, for relatively few Americans of any age see it as a source of conflict — either in society at large or in their own families.”

At the time, it seemed a miracle Woodstock didn’t end up a catastrophe. Organizers expected around 200,000 people; 500,000 showed up, blocking the New York State Thruway. There were shortages of food and sanitation. A heavy rainfall, an inch or two in an hour, turned Max Yasgur’s farm into that “sea of mud.” Some bands threatened to bolt if they weren’t paid in cash — but cash flow was low after the fence was cut and people streamed in, paying nothing.

But the attendees kept calm, shared food and helped each other come down from bad acid trips, making good on their devotion to peace and love. Barbara Kopple, two-time Oscar-winning documentarian and director of “Woodstock: Now and Then,” suggests it’s just that nonevent part of the event that is one of its biggest legacies.

“I think Woodstock proved the truth in The Who’s prophetic line, ‘The Kids Are Alright.’ It changed attitudes about young people in a way that will never be lost,” she says by telephone from New York. “They can come together in unimaginable numbers and do it peacefully. They can smoke pot without anything dreadful happening.”

The doc is both an interesting exposition of how one of the defining moments of the ‘60s came to be and a thoughtful discussion of how it came to be one of the defining moments.

For the “Now” part, Ms. Kopple interviewed young students at the Paul Green School of Rock. What could be a better symbol of the radical becoming culturally assimilated, even adorable, than to see two brothers, 9 and 11 — “entranced by The Who,” as Ms. Kopple describes them — who bought a gong simply because the doomed Keith Moon had one?

For the “Then,” part, Ms. Kopple doesn’t just rehash the classic documentary “Woodstock.” She gives a concise background of the event, interviewing such major players as promoter Michael Lang, the spirit behind the festival and an executive producer on this film, and money men John Roberts and Joel Rosenman, who had to wait many years and face many lawsuits before they could make their investment back.

Most interesting, though, are the interviews with the attendees — the hippies and regular people who made the trek to Woodstock, despite being threatened with losing their jobs and being disowned by their families. One Frenchman says it was his first weekend in America — he was so impressed that he never left.

Lots of great musicians played the festival — The Who, Joan Baez, Santana, Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane and the newly formed Crosby, Stills and Nash. One of the most memorable musical moments was when Jimi Hendrix turned “The Star-Spangled Banner” into a rock anthem. As the documentary recounts, his band mates were against him playing it — they felt it went against the anti-establishment spirit. The late guitarist played it anyway, and as Mr. Lang says, “It was three minutes of music that talked about everything that had been going on in our lives in the last decade.”

Woodstock was a political event without being overtly political. When Yippie Abbie Hoffman grabbed the microphone between songs during The Who’s set and started bemoaning the jailing of John Sinclair on a drug charge, Pete Townshend hit Mr. Hoffman in the back with his guitar and pushed him off stage.

Perhaps Woodstock’s most unforgettable symbol of the personal-as-the-political was the farm’s pond, which became a spot in which women frolicked naked. Those discussing the event in the documentary, such as New York Times columnist Gail Collins, believe the women weren’t just having fun — they were asserting their independence as women who could take care of themselves and didn’t need to fear anything at the festival, including rape.

Ms. Kopple’s documentary is so incisive on these sorts of points that its treatment of Woodstock’s legacy is a bit disappointing. The attendees say little about how Woodstock changed their outlooks and their lives after they returned home. Worse, in what feels like an obligatory tacked-on ending, the seminal festival is compared to the inauguration of President Obama.

“We now have people who gather together in Washington for Obama, and it’s that same kind of feeling of hope, that you can change things,” Ms. Kopple says on the phone. “Obama represents a post-Woodstock generation. There’s so much spirit of togetherness, of a generation, found in Obama’s campaign, so that we find ourselves at another political turning point. I think the story of Woodstock helped that … It’s still important.”

Must everything relate to the president these days? Mr. Obama doesn’t seem a socially countercultural figure at all. He might have admitted to doing drugs as a youth, but he hasn’t even come out in favor of legalizing marijuana. An exceedingly uxorious man, it’s hard to imagine him subscribing to the tenets of free love. He doesn’t even support gay marriage. (President Clinton, on the other hand, did seem the embodiment of Woodstock ideals.)

Ms. Kopple is on more solid ground when talking about more tangible aspects of the festival’s legacy. Citing “Live Aid, the concert to end poverty around the world, Live Earth, the concert to raise awareness for global warming, Burning Man,” Ms. Kopple says, “What Woodstock did was to help create a new genre of a concert. And it’s continued.”

And “Woodstock,” the film, helped usher in the era of the great music documentary. The 63-year-old filmmaker wasn’t at the original festival, but she did make “Woodstock ‘94” and “My Generation,” about Woodstock’s 25th anniversary.

“Allen Ginsberg, who was at the 1994 festival, said when I interviewed him there, ‘It’s a yearning, it’s a divine hunger for something better than what you’ve been given,’” Ms. Kopple says.

“Woodstock put that hunger on display for the world for 40 years, and the world will never be the same.”

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