Barak Goodman on revisiting Woodstock

While speaking to realscreen about his 2017 film for PBS’s ‘American Experience’ on the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, Barak Goodman revealed that while creating a captivating film with archive requires a ...
August 2, 2018

While speaking to realscreen about his 2017 film for PBS’s ‘American Experience’ on the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, Barak Goodman revealed that while creating a captivating film with archive requires a certain amount of skill, it also involves a lot of luck.

“In my career,” he told us then, “some of the greatest finds have been because you just ask the question, ‘Do you have anything in your basement?’”

It’s a question he’s asked a lot recently, as he prepares to get to the fine cut stage of his latest project for the PBS strand, Woodstock (pictured, below). Unlike the acclaimed 1970 film from Michael Wadleigh (featuring a young Martin Scorsese as an editor), which focused on the musical acts taking the stage over the three-day festival in 1969, Goodman’s doc is composed entirely of archive from the perspective of, and featuring, the hundreds of thousands in attendance.

“Woodstock was far more than a concert,” he says of the decision to focus on the audience and the activity happening off-stage. “It was an iconic moment in the history of the counter-culture in America, and it has continued to occupy this unique space in American history. We wanted to know why: what was it about this event that so captured people at the time, and since? The music was great, but it wasn’t a sufficient answer — there have been a lot of concerts before and after that were equal to Woodstock in terms of the music.

“What Woodstock did was it put the conceit of peace and love — the rallying cry of the counterculture that [at that point] was just words — to the test,” he continues. “Woodstock was a near disaster from the moment it commenced — no one had expected the crowds. They expected 50,000 to 100,000 and they got 500,000. In a situation like that it could’ve gone terribly wrong. Was peace and love really going to hold the tide?”

In interviewing “dozens of people” ranging from concertgoers to organizers, Goodman says that question was answered with a resounding “yes.”

“Everyone to a person describes the serenity, cooperation and a sense of love and sharing that held everything together through it all,” he says. “And that’s inspiring, especially in these times.”

woodstockThose interviews, Goodman says, will serve as voice-over or narration, and not as “talking head”- style interview footage. That decision was made early on by ‘American Experience’ executive producer Mark Samels, to allow the archive to provide a more “immersive” experience for viewers. Furthermore, according to Goodman, “our feeling was that this wasn’t about the individual characters. These festival goers all have their own stories but the big story, and the main character, was the festival itself.

“There’s an A and B storyline,” he explains. “One storyline is the organizers — their goals, their dream, the reality they faced and the heroic attempts to keep it from devolving into chaos. And the second storyline is the people who came — who they were, why they came, what they experienced at the festival and what they took away from it.

“I’d say the first half of the film gets you to the festival and the second half is what happens when you’re there.”

A fair amount of archive came from those festival attendees — ranging from still photos to home movies and testimonials — housed at the Museum at Bethel Woods, which sits on the site of the original “music and art fair.”

“The networks were there,” adds Goodman. “Not for the first day or two, but arriving late on the Saturday and Sunday [of the event] and surprisingly, NBC had a lot of footage shot at the festival. But a large number of people [attending the concert] seemed to have brought movie cameras or still cameras. There were some remarkable still photos capturing the masses of humanity taken by amateur photographers.”

The team is also having fun with setting up the context for the concert in the first half of the doc by lovingly sending up the Sixties culture.

“There’s a campiness to some of the story we’re telling, about what the Sixties were like, how people were discovering this counter-culture, turning against their parents. We found all sorts of fun, wild old commercials, and archival flotsam and jetsam,” says Goodman.

Still, the bulk of the material comes from what Goodman justifiably calls a “treasure trove” of archive. After extensive negotiations with Warner Bros., which holds the rights to the footage, the project was granted exclusive access to the outtakes of the original Wadleigh documentary.

“There is probably more than 100 hours of pristine, 16mm film that sat in various basements and vaults, unseen,” marvels Goodman. “This stuff is beautiful. The first time I was shown it on a primitive machine — I think it was a Steenbeck at Warner Bros. — my jaw just dropped. It really puts you right back there.

“Some of my favorite footage is not down in the crowd around the stage, but on the outskirts, where there was a whole world — a whole thriving mini-city erected on the perimeter of the festival,” he adds. “There were improvised head shops in the woods, yoga being done on the hog farm compound, a second stage where people would just get up and riff. The folks who made the original film really did a great job — they had 13 camera crews so they had people going out to these outlying areas, just filming what they saw.”

The film was one of the featured projects in PBS’s TCA summer press tour presentation, along with upcoming work from Ken Burns and Julia Marchesi. The aim is to have Woodstock festival-ready by early next year.

But while Goodman and his company, Ark Media, already have several other projects in production and development, he won’t be looking into exploring Woodstock ’69′s grungier offspring, Woodstock ’99, through a documentary.

“No, this will be plenty,” he says with a laugh. “I’m into ’69. I wish I could go back there.”

  • This story first appeared in the May/June 2018 issue of realscreen magazine, which is out now. Not a subscriber? Click here for more information.
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