Michael Wadleigh never played a note and is not a household name, but he may be the person most responsible for securing Woodstock’s place in history as the epitome of Sixties counterculture. Wadleigh filmed and directed the Oscar-winning “Woodstock” documentary about the three days of peace and music on a farm in upstate New York in 1969, but his focus went way beyond the performances on stage.
“What people know of Woodstock today is our film. They don’t really know the reality in any other way than we put it,”Wadleigh told Reuters. “I think we were pretty faithful, but another film maker might have chosen to film all love songs and not really gone for the politics. But that was what I wanted to do,” he said.
The 1970 documentary was not just about the protest songs from the likes of Richie Havens, Jimi Hendrix, Joan Baez and Country Joe McDonald’s anti-Vietnam war song “I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag” with its famous opening cheer “Give me an F!”
The film also captured the impromptu yoga classes, the skinny dippers, the fringed jackets, bandanas, naked children, mud slip ‘n slides, announcements about bad acid, astounded townsfolk, and even the overwhelmed chemical toilets.
“We talked ahead of time about ‘The Canterbury Tales.’ We tried to get profiles of people; the nude bathing, the couple on the road, the guy who was cleaning the toilets. He had such pride in what he was doing,” Wadleigh said.
Wadleigh, who calls himself a “hardcore leftie” at the time, abandoned Hollywood more than 20 years ago and helped set up a non-profit called Homo Sapiens, which campaigns for sustainable development. He divides his time between a farmhouse in Wales, a boat in Europe and trips to Asia and Africa.
50 years ago, he was a 26-year-old who had taken a leave of absence from medical school to make independent films about human rights and ecology when he was asked to film what was planned as a small three-day music festival in upstate New York.
“It wasn’t really a straightforward festival. It was supposed to be about ecology. The organizers wanted to get people back to the garden, back to land. I wanted to do the film about music and politics. So we made a deal that I would get final cut,” he said.
Wadleigh rounded up 100 of the best camera and sound people he could find, including a then unknown Martin Scorsese and shot more film than Hollywood had ever known for a single movie.
“We had really researched what we wanted to do in terms of the bands and their music. I was heavily lyrically driven. I wanted to make sure that every song was a socially conscious song,” he said.
The film used multiple imagery and split screens, a technique that was innovative at the time and Wadleigh cut his initial four-hour version to three hours ten minutes.
Movie studio Warner Bros was “utterly convinced it would be a disaster. But people lined up around the block and the reviews came out, and the rest is history,” he said.
After the film won the best documentary Oscar in 1971,Wadleigh wrote screenplays and science fiction films, but says he finally gave up on Hollywood when no-one would green-light the political films that remained his passion.
Wadleigh wishes that today’s musicians would bring the same energy to climate change as they did in the sixties to songs about social justice and anti-war issues.
“We would hope that there were more people writing songs, which are so powerful, that articulate these issues. In terms of getting at the real problems we face with sustainable development and greenhouse gas emissions, they are just not being made,” he said.