A Trinity of Sight, Sound and The Psychedelic 1960s

By the time we got to Woodstock
We were half a million strong
And everywhere there was song and celebration
And I dreamed I saw the bombers
Riding shotgun in the sky
And they were turning into butterflies
Above our nation
- Woodstock, by Joni Mitchell, 1970


Woodstock festival is a miracle. Half a million of hippies gathered in the ranch on August 15th 1969, without a slightest violence or dispute, sharing the glamor of music and psychedelics. Before Woodstock, no one believe the music would have such power to comfort the whole generation of dissatisfaction and furthermore cut right to the chase of political issues.

“Rage against the machine”, perhaps is the right word for all the youngster movements in the 1960s – the young cannot turn a blind eye to the faraway frontier in southeast Asia, as well as the body of Martin Luther King. Just as an ancient Chinese proverb goes, “Heroes emerge in troubled times”, yes, and so does the Art. Countless musicians started to message their dejected troubled mind through folk and rock songs, and countless film auteurs started to struggle out of the obsolete filmmaking systems by using the experience of European new wave movements. One thing is true: wherever the aesthetic movement marches, the core pursuit of these practices was clear -- the disaffection to the endless war, whether it is hot or cold, at home or aboard. If we look through the motion pictures during the 1960s, it is not hard to find how these films constantly synchronized with imagery of panicky, despair and dissatisfaction. This discomfort creeps all the way from What Ever Happens to Baby Jane? (1962)’s psychological thrill to The Graduate (1967)’s bewilderment, and pauses in the suspension, absurdism and callousness of They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969) However, even though sharing the same social concerns as all works do, Woodstock was different from them in terms of the attitude they posed. Instead of inciting the fearful perceptions, the festival, along with the documentary Woodstock tried to demonstrate the “psychedelically” uplifting state of mind for audience to share. In March of 1970, Warner Bros Pictures produced the 183-minute “Rockumentary” Woodstock and to their surprise, the film ranked as the 5th of the block-busters of the whole year. Regarded as the most reliable resource of the Woodstock festival, the film has been analyzed by some scholars in disparate fields of study. One of the case is in Andy Bennett’s book. In 2003, Andy Bennett published a book of collected papers of different scholars under the name of Remembering Woodstock. In this book, he examines the Woodstock’s differentiated roles from sociology to mass culture, from Vietnam war to its influences towards 21st century Australian lifestyle.

This essay, in line with Andy Bennett’s articles, will focus on the film Woodstock, to be more specifically, the concordance of the aesthetic devices of the documentary: the sight, the sound and the visualization of hippie culture. To elaborate the advancedness of its visual effects, the analysis of particular cinematic devices would be conducted and concluded; together with the contradiction and equilibrium between the pictures and the sound; and also with the focalization of certain subjects such as “war”, “home” and “younger generations”. From my point of view, the documentary itself is an exemplary product of 1960s culture, and I think the analysis of these three dimensions of the film could successfully unveil the true and long underestimated value of the film.

1. Creating a Formative Reality

As a work of documentary, it is expected as a realistic picture that makes direct correspondence to what happened in front of the camera. Admittedly, the main body of the film presents us a whole world of Woodstock, starting from the early construction to the leftovers on the grass; however, the filmmakers did not convey the festival by honest recording but by formative interpretation. In other words, the film has decided to establish the view by their own understanding, which included undoubtedly their authorship. In my first impression, the film is an integrity of psychedelics and natural beings, or namely as a formative reality. Talking about the formative practice and its relation to Hollywood cinematic conventions, here I list two main perspectives that worth discussing:

1) The art of split-screens

Taking split-screens as the format was not initially intended for exhibiting the aesthetic aspiration, it was made for more rooms for the 120-mile-long footages. However, the flexibility of two-end/three-end frames and the advantages of the wide screen make it possible for editors to create something new out of it. Once the film weakens its essence as a “window”, the film as a “frame” would take its place. In the film, there are as many as ten types of split-screen, each focusing on distinct items or phenomenon. For example, the split-screens that emphasizes “contraction” could visualize into many subjects like “one-to-many”, “red-to-blue”, “free will-to-institutionalization”, “male-to-female” and so on. (see figures 1-4) These single videos, just like Kuleshov’s elements in montage, joint together, improvising the new meanings.

What makes the split-screen interesting and profound is the ambiguity. For example, in figure 1, the man on the right was captured right in the center of the frame, with big close-up and sharp focus; while on the left side, it was a high angle shot, long shot, with countless people in the frames and losing their focus. One interpretation of this is that this “easy rider” on the right was accompanies by so many friends as in the left frame, otherwise you can see him as a nobody, because no matter what he says or does, he will finally get dissolved in the crowd as the people on the left do.

In addition, there are asymmetric splits and three-split-screens, even some splits compounding of a photo and the video. (see figures 5-7). All those applications and inventions in visual effects help to present the connections between these songs and their cultural background such as the Joe Hill song representing the determinations of civil war, and with Joan Baez’s husband’s snapshot we insert the characteristic of Joe Hill into his figure.

2) Hippies on the screen

Despite the farmers and policemen in the video, there are two streams of people that depicted in detail, one is the hippie performers and the other is the hippie audiences. Even though both singers and spectators share the same rage, disaffection and disappointments, their roles are different. Singers are the leaders of this mental revolution while the audiences offer their supports. The distinctions are embedded in the visual presentations. The folk musicians are mostly captured in the center of the frame, with medium shot and close-up(many extreme close-ups as well), and the angle is always low making them look steady and tall. Besides, the focus is sharp, so that outlines the figure’s expressions, body movements, and the camera caters to the 30-degree principles that makes the viewers easier to catch up with artists’ performance. Such devices are to some extent alike the classic Hollywood’s conventions of figure portrays. On the contrary, when camera focused on the hippie audiences, or the rock singers, the techniques uses are quite avant-garde, for instance, with soft focus(see figure 1), anamorphic lens(see figure 10) and back-light photography(see figure 11). The cinematic effects are highly underlined to demonstrate the psychedelic hippies, dizzy and dazzle, having a freely good time in marihuana and muds. Possibly, it was the influences from European art cinema.

2. Social issues in the frame

If it was not for the severe social circumstances, there will not be hippie culture, nor there will be any great moment like Woodstock. Woodstock was great for its spiritual legacy of peace and love. In film Woodstock, many issues were raised time and time again, for me, they could be concluded in three parts as follows:

1) No way Home

On the question of “where we Americans are going?”, many 60s’ films had given the answer – nowhere. In Woodstock, such questions are transformed into a similar imagery – home. In an interview with a hippie couple, they said they had been away from home for long, and they had no idea what to do at Woodstock. Also, many singers implicate the home as a place that can never be back to. For example, Joan Baez in Swing Low Sweet Chariot calls for the chariot to carry us home; Richie Havens sings in him improvised ballad Freedom that “sometimes I feel like a motherless child”. More interestingly, while the songs were telling the emptiness of belongs, there were real audiences facing the problem of not going home because they have lost contact with their brothers and sisters and penniless. After all, this could be a white joke about “home”.

2) Vietnam war

1969 was the year U.S. drown in the swamp of Vietnam war. Many of the young people realized the injustice of the war and decided to refuse the enlistment at cost of losing their freedom, which led to Joan Baez’s husband’s absence. Woodstock was an absolute anti-war event at that time and the anti-war songs take up the majority of all songs. Starting with Richie Haven’s lyrics: “still marching! Still marching! Still marching!”, the song depicted some soldiers’ confusion and loneliness from different wars. Two others songs of “Anti-Vietnam War Song” and “Uncle Sam Blues” otherwise condemn the war in an irony way, they stand in a soldier shoes’ and outline the violence and absurdism of the figure.

3) Younger generation

The Woodstock will not be Woodstock if there’s only hatred and pessimism. In John Sebastian’s performance, the cross-cutting shows many children having free time at Woodstock. In the frames, the color was warm, as well as John’s warm tune “Then I´ll know that all I´ve learned my kid assumes/And all my deepest worries must be his cartoons.” It is hard to imagine the groups taking LSDs could be good parents, but that is the extremely utopian dream of Woodstock and of hippies. Purposely or inadvertently, there is a shift from the 60s earlier works to Woodstock, in terms of the attitudes towards the social conditions. Right at the corner of the turbulent 1960s and unknown 1970s, Woodstock as both festival and film, calls for the hope of next generation: make love, not war.

3. Conclusion

Through the analysis of the sight, sound and cultural focalization of film Woodstock, it is clear that the film was a typical new cinema. It textures the panorama with very formative techniques and personal insights, which might be a potential legacy from the European art cinema. It was innovative, very bold and in a sense help explored the borders and limitations of a documentary, or a rockumentary. In fact, as the assistant director of Woodstock, Martin Scorsese managed to create the new context of rock music and documentary, in his later works such as Long Strange Trip(2017), George Harrison: Living in the Material World(2011) and No Direction Home: Bob Dylan(2005).


- Bennett, Andy, ed. Remembering Woodstock. Routledge, 2017.

- Landy, Elliott, ed. Woodstock vision: the spirit of a generation. Backbeat Books, 2009.

- Makower, Joel. Woodstock: The Oral History. Doubleday Books, 1989.

- Bell, Dale, ed. Woodstock: An inside look at the movie that shook up the world and defined. a generation. Michael Wiese Productions, 1999.

- Bordwell, David, Kristin Thompson, and Jeff Smith. Film art: An introduction. McGraw-Hill Education, 2016.

- Lewis, Jon. American film: A history. WW Norton & Company, 2007.

Image: Walter de Maria