I bought this film in VHS form when it was a two-cassette edition. I believe it was almost four hours long, according to the box. Unfortunately, a flooded basement claimed the tapes before I could watch them. Cut to 11 years later and I successfully check out the single DVD from the local library and watched the entire film, twice. This week.
This is one of those rare viewing experience that I know everyone has at least a dozen or so times in their life. Lets say you get about half way through a film, and you are really, really enjoying it. You're almost bouncing in your seat (I did that with this film). You hope it stays on course and finishes strong because it's already starting to feel like one of those films you will go back to again and again. One of those films you'll pass around to your friends telling them they're missing out if they haven't seen this gem. You are actually watching a film that you know is going to be one of your favorite films you've ever seen. That happened to me with Woodstock.
I'm admittedly biased towards liking this film. The late 1960's thru late 1970's is THE era that I wish I'd lived thru, so any kind of documentary about the culture, politics, music, film or literature from that era is going to catch my interest. This documentary also had a very young, very 'coked up', Martin Scorsese as an editor, so my interest is further piqued. It also is about four hours long, which speaks to the exhaustive nature of the coverage of the festival. It probably could have been nine hours long.
The cinematography is consistent thru all the performances, often capturing one entire song in one long take. A split screen (sometimes up to four and five images at once) is used instead of cutting away. This way we can see close up shots of Roger Daltry, Pete Townsend and Keith Moon all on the screen at the same time as they rock thru the two minute breakdown at the end of "Summertime Blues". If this was all one shot, it would have to be from such a distance that we (the audience) would get none of the detail that makes the whole performance so amazing. In three separate close ups, we see that Townsend can play the guitar literally with his eyes closed, that Daltry dances around in a musical trance and Moon is drumming so intensely that the sweat is literally flying off him and looks like a sprinkler.
Better yet, take a performance that is all about one person, Jimmy Hendrix. As he plucks away at what is now his famous psychedelic guitar version of the Star Spangled Banner, the camera is a tight close up of this fingers as they effortlessly slide from fret to fret. The split screen is still used, but this time it simply duplicates the same image in a mirror effect. The visuals become as trippy as the music itself.
This last comment is the essence of why this is not only one of my favorite documentaries I've ever seen, but on the short list of great films I've ever seen. I do not play music. I've tried. I've tried three different instruments for long enough period of time each that I have a great respect for anyone who can successfully play anything above a kazoo. In about 90% of the performances caught on film for this documentary, those performers are clearly at the top of their game. The film conveys a sense of wonder, because of the long and unedited takes, in the ability of the musicians to play as good as they are. I imagine that some of this has to do with the sound of half a million fans cheering them on. I've done some live theatre and I can attest to the power of 200 people, so I can't even comprehend what Joe Cocker must have been feeling when he sang, "Help from my Friends", but I can come close by watching it within this film.