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‘Woodstock: Three Days that Defined a Generation’ Review: PBS Offers a Fresh Look at Familiar History

Tribeca: The world may not have needed another Woodstock movie, but this PBS documentary succeeds by prioritizing regular people over the performers.

“Woodstock: Three Days that Defined a Generation”

Does the world really need another movie about Woodstock? There are fewer of them than you might imagine, but the two that most readily spring to mind feel like a closed parenthetical: Michael Wadleigh released his definitive 1970 concert documentary when the music was still echoing across the fields of upstate New York, and Ang Lee’s 2009 “Taking Woodstock” suggested we should have left it at that.

Barak Goodman (“Oklahoma City”) and co-director Jamila Ephron (“Far from the Tree”) must have disagreed. Made in conjunction with PBS, timed for the 50th anniversary, and set for a proper theatrical run before airing on the television channel later this year, their “Woodstock: Three Days that Defined a Generation” revisits the epochal music festival as if it had never been done before — as if the Aquarian Exposition isn’t the only rock concert in American history that gets its own page in high school textbooks.

But while Goodman and Ephron’s film abides by a “peace & love 101” approach that might prove tiresome for people who already know about Wavy Gravy or the inclement weather that threatened to rain out an entire movement, this lucid and entertaining look back in time gradually twists that broadness into its greatest strength. By the time Jimi Hendrix takes the stage at 8:30 on a soggy Monday morning, the directors have reduced the music to little more than a rallying cry. Through their lens, Woodstock has less contemporary value as a concert than it does as a coming together. Without stressing the point too much — or at all — this film argues that good intentions are the biggest difference between discord and unity, war and peace, Woodstock and the Fyre Festival.

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Entirely constructed from archival material, and narrated by an unseen chorus of Woodstock organizers and attendees, “Three Days that Defined a Generation” isn’t a film about Canned Heat or Creedence Clearwater Revival. On the contrary, it’s a film about the two people who lured them to a stretch of farmland 100 miles north of Madison Square Garden, and the hundreds of thousands of people who drove up there to see them. There is, of course, plenty of chatter about contemporaneous political conflicts (the Vietnam War obviously being the most crucial point of context), but even more about the unifying desire to turn away from the bad trip the rest of the world was having.

“Three Days that Defined a Generation” is at its most useful and arresting when Ephron and Goodman cut through the history and trains his attention on the legion of starry-eyed kids who made it happen. Chief among them: Woodstock co-founders John Roberts and Joel Makower, who borrowed money from the Polident fortune to get the ball rolling. For every generic audio clip where they marvel at the scope of the event and how many toilets it required (“We were all in our mid-20s and had created something much bigger than we anticipated”), there’s a more salient tidbit about how the operation came together. We also can’t forget Michael Lang, who had the big idea, or Max Yasgur, the buttoned-up 50-year-old Bethel native who lent the festival his dairy farm because he believed that Woodstock epitomized the kind of freedoms that kids were supposedly dying to protect in Vietnam. After half a century, Ephron and Goodman finally give Yasgur his due.

In lieu of performance footage, the film leans on evocative clips of regular people. Ephron and Goodman turn their attention to concert-goers lining up to buy supplies at the only local supermarket. To the kids stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic who abandoned their minivans, joined impromptu carpools, and made instant friendships with strangers who shared their interest in a more gentle future. Where other filmmakers might use this stuff for dashes of color or interstitial crowd work in between songs, Ephron and Goodman make it the main course.

One of the documentary’s many nostalgic (and often anonymous) voices puts it like this: “If 400,00 people could get together have absolutely no violence, absolutely no conflict, I felt like we could change the world.” However redundant “Three Days that Defined a Generation” can be, it palpably conveys that — even at the time — Woodstock was always intended to be a collective act of reaffirmation for a country that had lost its way. It didn’t succeed because the organizers hired the best caterers, offered an Instagram-friendly glamping experience, or partnered with Ja Rule. It succeeded because everyone who went there needed the opportunity to see each other. We may not have needed another Woodstock movie, but at least this one helps explain why every generation seems to get the Woodstock they deserve.

Grade: B-

“Woodstock: Three Days that Defined a Generation” premiered at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival. PBS Films will release it in theaters on May 24 in New York, and June 7 in LA.

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