Woodstock at 50: A Conversation with Award Winning Filmmaker Barak Goodman

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tags: documentaries, PBS, 1960s, cultural history, Woodstock

Jonathan Montano is an intern with the History News Network.

On Tuesday, August 6th, PBS is set to release its newest documentary to their series American Experience. “Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation” explores the legendary music festival by turning the cameras to the crowd. Emmy award winning filmmaker Barak Goodman and PBS tell the story of those who attended the concert, and how they endured a three-day festival with deficient infrastructure.


Woodstock is represented as the embodiment of the 1960’s counter-culture. The legendary festival remains prominent in the lore of hippie culture and the adage of sex, drugs, and rock n roll. Filmmaker Barak Goodman explores the culture of the late 1960’s and tells the story of who made Woodstock a historic experience: the audience.


Prior to the film’s release, HNN was able to connect with Goodman to discuss what making the film taught him about the importance of Woodstock. Goodman highlights the distinct culture that produced the festival, the importance of communitarianism in the crowd, and examines the lessons we should carry through to the future. 


Jonathan Montano: Before we start, I wanted to say that I learned a lot from the documentary. It was very interesting and educational. To start, let’s just talk about what you think Woodstock says about the counter culture era in general.


Barak Goodman: Sure, you know I think a couple of things, it’s a big question. I mean by 1969 there had been a lot of talk, a lot of sort of expression of what the counter culture was about. There were slogans – like peace and love and so forth – and I think in some ways what Woodstock showed us was that those concepts – those slogans – had a basis in reality. That this generation and these kids had taken on board these concepts and really tried to make something real of them. 


What makes this festival the sort of window – the lens – into the counter culture it’s that they had to execute these big concepts in a real way and under trying circumstances. They had to express peace and love, they had to build a new city, as they say, in order to avoid a disaster. So, I think it really made it concrete, and brought to focus, what these concepts really meant in real life.


That’s the greatness and magic of what happened there and really what’s so inspiring about it. When chips were down, they acted and put their money where their mouth was. That was the saving grace of the festival.


Montano: Right, especially considering everything they had to go through, it really seemed as though it might’ve gone terribly.


Goodman: In maybe 99 of 100 cases like this it would’ve gone terribly. These people were hungry, tired, living poorly, had little help from the outside except some medical assistance from the state of New York, and of course heroic help from the surrounding communities. But essentially, they were on their own. They had only each other. They had only what was in their hearts and souls at that point to get them through. I don’t want to exaggerate – this isn’t the Donner Party – but it wasn’t a pleasant experience. Many other festivals had devolved into violence, especially with drugs and all around. But this called on their better natures, and that’s what is inspiring.


Montano: Yeah, I agree. I know today there are countless festivals from Coachella, Lola-pa-looza, and even what could’ve been Fyre Festival. But was Woodstock the first of its kind? Did it pave the way for festival culture? Or is it entirely distinct?


Goodman: I think both. There were other festivals that preceded Woodstock but nothing on that scale. It’s become a myth, an icon, an inspiration for festivals that have come since. I think we all have this idea of Woodstock in the back of our heads when we go to a festival, but I don’t think it has or ever will be repeated. I mean you see all the anniversary Woodstock concerts try to be mounted and they all fail in comparison.


I think ultimately you can’t recreate the particular set of circumstances that made Woodstock unique. You’re never going to have that many people show up unexpectedly with no infrastructure for them. You’ll never have the isolation, especially now with cell phones. There would be constant communication with the outside world. There were just so many unique circumstances that make Woodstock unrepeatable. But I think it is a beacon and an inspiration for every future festival that has happened. We all want to go to Woodstock when we go to Coachella.


Montano: Absolutely. Would you say that the culture in general was a unique circumstance that made Woodstock happen?


Goodman: Yes, I do, but I want to hedge it a bit. I do think that the late 60’s were a special moment. We had a galvanizing issue in Vietnam that brought people together in a way that was almost unique. We had a whole generation ready to turn the page on their parent’s generation, wanting to be different.


But I would also say that we are seeing a bit of a repeat. My kids are that age, and they feel somewhat the same as my generation did about Vietnam but for them it’s global warming. In other words, we let them down and left them an unsustainable world and we’re doing nothing about it. It’s going to have to be them that does something. While I don’t think it’s exactly the same, and you wouldn’t have Woodstock, you are seeing a level of activism and a level of communitarianism, and Us vs. Them, that I think for the first time it does feel like the 1960’s. That’s my hope.


Montano: Certainly. The comparison between Vietnam and global warming is really interesting.


Goodman: Yeah. I mean, these are existential threats. Back then it was “yeah, that could be me going over there and dying.” It’s a bit more diluted now but young people do feel as though there might not be a habitable world to live in if we don’t take the issue on ourselves; if we don’t change things. The great thing about Woodstock is that it on a microcosmic level that you can change things by banding together and being a community if you’re willing to pull in the same direction. I’m hoping this film gets seen by young people because it shows a way to move forward.


Montano: The sixties are often represented as the era of sex, drugs, and rock n roll, especially in pop culture. How does Woodstock add a nuance to that depiction?


Goodman: Right. So, like a lot of stereotypes it’s rooted in something but it’s also a stereotype, a caricature really. I certainly had that caricature going into making the film. I thought they were just hippies doing drugs, but that just trivializes what they were.


I think that what Woodstock, and what I hope the film does, is in some ways rehabilitate the hippie culture. It wasn’t a caricature. Don’t make fun of stoned out hippies wandering naked in a field. This was about something real. It was really beautiful Really beautiful. It was inspiring. It’s something to aspire to not look to down on. That was a real revelation for me in making the film and made it a joyous experience. The feeling like these kids were on to something, they had something to teach us.  I love the moment in the film when Max Yeager, someone who represents a different generation and a different point of view, gets up there and makes a very appreciative speech to the audience saying you showed us, you taught us something.


Montano: Which leads me to my next question: Is there anything we should take from Woodstock and apply to contemporary times? In other words, is there something we should learn not just about Woodstock, but from it?


Goodman: Absolutely. And I think that’s the last part of the show. It’s basically the better angels of our nature. In this dark time, we tend to give up on people, at least I do. I begin to question if people are drawn to good or not good. Light or dark. What Woodstock shows is that we have within us an enormous capacity for sharing, generosity, Unitarianism, all those things. And boy is that sorely needed right now. It is nothing more of a reminder of how much can get done by following that path, rather than divisiveness or violence.


I think it’s that simple. It was a beautiful moment of collective goodness prevailing over what could’ve been a very dark and destructive experience. That’s what Woodstock has to teach us.


Montano: The documentary emphasizes a self-police system, mainly through the hog farm, and even self help system for drugs that led to bad trips. A user would be taken care of, then they’d take care of the next bad trip. Do you think anything similar is possible today especially considering the era of social media, hyper-security, even helicopter mom type emphasis in place today?


Goodman: You did a much better job pointing to the things that Woodstock can teach us than I did. Absolutely. How brilliant was that? What a stroke of genius to understand the crowd well enough to know that a bunch of rag tag hippies from New Mexico would be better cops than armed New York Policeman. That to me shows a deep, deep understanding of who these kids were and what they were all about.


I do think, and I’m no expert on security, but I do think that hyper militarized, Us vs. Them attitude of policing right now draws out the worst and leads to more conflict than it needs to. And I would love to see an attempt to do something much more like Woodstock, with a please force not a police force. And just to deescalate – and we all see it – particularly in confrontations between cops, and usually people of color, that get escalated so quickly, and guns get pulled out and bullets fly. But isn’t it easier to take a deep breath, realize we’re all human beings and just talk to each other? It just feels like that is more productive. That’s what that festival did and thank god they did it.


Montano: In a really brilliant way


Goodman: In such a brilliant way! God, I mean, not only did the hog farm supply security, but they ended up feeding everybody, and taking care of overdoses. And it was because they had already figured out how to take care of each other in a communitarian way. And they knew how. it wasn’t a set of skills that many had, but they did. Stanley Goldstein was like, ok, that’s who we need here. And yes, I would love to see that attempted at events today.


Montano: To begin to wrap up, what did you think of Woodstock before the documentary and did your experience change that thought at all?


Goodman: Totally. I think I felt as most people did. That Woodstock was a great rock 'n roll concert. The original movie showed that. And it was that! But I didn’t understand the real story, which is what happens to the crowd. That was the goal of the documentary. We wanted to turn the camera’s around and show the crowd. Whatever made Woodstock Woodstock was not up on the stage, it was down with the people. That was the revelation, the gee whiz moment. That’s why our film can stand next to the other brilliant one from 1971, because it’s about something totally different.


Montano: Exactly. When I first watched it, I expected to see things like Hendrix and the Star Spangled Banner, you know – the rock 'n roll side - the brilliance of the music. But that’s not what you showed, and I was enamored by that. And obviously I’m a lot younger than Woodstock, but everybody kind of knows it. But I only knew it as a rock concert. I had no idea, for example, that there was free admission, and that really blew my mind.


Goodman: Right, right. We weren’t about to try and re-do the concert movie. That original movie is so great, who would want a new one? We wanted a different one. We got the material to make it and now the two films are companion pieces.


Montano: Just one final question: do you think it’s possible to have a festival today where there’s free admission? Do you think anyone would concede the way Woodstock did? To me it’s just impossible to imagine.


Goodman: No, I don’t. Not in our current climate. First of all, you can’t have the same thing because of cell phones. There will never be that isolation again. They were on their own and they had to make it through together.


And the money side, I just don’t see it. It’s so improbable that the quartet of people who put this on would all be so in over their heads. They were so naïve in ways and this just hadn’t been done. And back then if you just had money you could do it. But now a days you get disasters like Fyre Festival. But here it was also partly the human beings. Joel and Jon were – Joel remains, Jon passed away – a wonderful human being who just doesn’t put money ahead of other people. And that’s what happened.


But it was also the times. Not everyone was counting money all the time and figuring out profit margins. It was a capitalist venture, but it was so loose. They were just writing checks – they weren’t even keeping count. They didn’t know how in debt they were. It was just a different moment in our history and one I’m nostalgic about. Today, all the accountants would be there and with their lawyers, and law suits would be flying long before a single chord of music was played. And actually, that is happening with the 50th anniversary concert. It’s probably going to fall apart because it’s a different moment in history. Woodstock was unique and entirely special.


Watch “Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation” on PBS Tuesday, August 6th to enjoy an incredible documentary highlighting the 50th anniversary of the historic music festival.