Thursday, April 23, 2009

Ebertfest 2009: Opening Night

(Festival Director Nate Kohn, Chaz Ebert, and Roger Ebert/April 22, 2009)

The 11th annual Roger Ebert's Film Festival welcomed back the man in the event's name. A program on an Apple computer allowed him to deliver some introductory comments. The Urbana, Illinois native's new electronic voice has given him a British accent. Maybe Ebert's just following Madonna's lead. Anyway, it was nice to see him back where he belongs, and the crowd gave him appreciative applause when he appeared on the Virginia Theatre's stage.

The festival kicked off with a screening appropriate for Earth Day: Woodstock, 3 Days of Peace & Music. Honestly, when I saw this title on the list, I wasn't thrilled even though I'd never seen the film before tonight. I like plenty of 1960s music well enough, but my fear was that the movie would be one big self-congratulatory love-in to the flower child generation. Tonight I was further dismayed to discover that we would not be seeing the 184-minute original cut but the longer director's cut. (The festival program lists the running time at 225 minutes. I assume this is the same as the 228-minute director's cut listed on the Internet Movie Database.) Slightly over three hours sounded long enough; verging on four seemed like too much.

Still, I approached Woodstock with an open mind and found it to be a fairly compelling mix of concert film and event documentary. Woodstock is a refreshing change from contemporary music videos and concert films whose directors and editors try to show off their skills to the detriment of watching the performances. Here, whether it's a single camera's intimate, unbroken take of Canned Heat or the three superimposed screens of Ten Years After, seeing the musicians in action is primary. It's a lot easier to get lost in the performance when the visuals are in service to the content rather than the other way around.

That's not to say the film is stylistically austere. The use of split screen was innovative at the time. The mix of music and spot news storytelling--interviewees include affected locals, concert attendees, and the man cleaning the chemical toilets--give an expansive view of the scope and impact of the concert beyond the typical rock and roll movie. The photography in the film is phenomenal and looked fantastic in the pristine high definition source that was screened. (Of course the sound was fabulous too.)

As with any movie in which music is front and center, how much one enjoys it will color the overall experience. There's a lot of good to great stuff. Jimi Hendrix's concluding set proves every single bit why it and he are legendary. The photography, much of it from a low angle that emphasizes his guitar god status, shows how hard he works on his instrument yet how effortless it seems. The close-up of the frets while he interprets "The Star Spangled Banner" does the heavy lifting of music criticism to understand how the sounds the guitar makes ties in with the unsung lyrics. Santana blazes through its one song. The Who tear through three classics. I know it's sacrilege, but I could have done without the folkies, John Sebastian in particular, and Country Joe and the Fish.

(As an aside, is it me or is Sha Na Na a send-up of 1950s youth culture and older America, or is it supposed to be a loving recreation? The performance in the film makes it look like the former.)

As someone who wasn't born when the summer of love took place, I've sort of had enough of hearing how committed and important the Woodstock generation was/is and blah blah blah blah blah. While the film doesn't lack for idealism or sweeping statements about what this concert meant, I was pleasantly surprised to see that these sentiments are mostly kept in check. It was interesting that the festival audience's only applause for a non-performer came when the Port-o-san cleaner was proud to mention he had a son attending the concert and one serving in Vietnam.

The post-film discussion with director Michael Wadleigh, associate producer Dale Bell, and a member of Sha Na Na ventured more into the territory that I was dreading, but fortunately the film speaks well enough for itself. The most interesting thing to come from the talk was the idea that the film's structure roughly takes the shape of The Canterbury Tales in how it weaves together the different stories and perspectives.

(Grade: Woodstock: Director's Cut: B)

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