I loved Woodstock. Not being there, because I wasn't. I'm referring to the movie.

In fact, I probably enjoyed watching the event far more than most of the 400,000 people who were there 50 years ago starting Thursday, those weary folks who fought through traffic meltdowns ... and heavy mud ... and lack of sleep ... and food and water shortages ... and lousy views of the stage ... and perhaps the grossest portable toilets in the history of Western Civilization.

I was surprised to learn recently that a big part of the credit for my viewing pleasure belongs to a gentleman who grew up in Akron.

When he graduated from Buchtel, he went by Michael Wadley. Later, he changed it to Wadleigh, the original spelling of the family name.

Now 79, Wadleigh was the person who directed the Oscar-winning, smash-hit documentary that has been viewed by tens of millions of people during the past half-century.

I tried to get an interview with Wadleigh, and came close. He has been cruising along the coasts of Europe in a 26-foot motorsailer, and late last week he agreed through an associate to a phone interview. But over the weekend he fell ill, and the associate told me he was still ailing on Tuesday.

So most of the information here comes to us secondhand from a variety of sources, the most important being an extensive interview he gave to a website called efilecritic.com in the summer of 2009.

How a relatively little-known filmmaker ended up documenting the most famous concert in history is fascinating.

Wadleigh had made plenty of small documentaries, many of them focusing on black civil rights, but he wasn't exactly Warner Bros.

In fact, Warner Bros. was among the big-time moviemakers who declined to finance the film. Because the only previous major documentary about a rock show, “Monterrey Pop,” had bombed, the big boys weren't interested. And the people staging the concert had spent all their money on the event itself.

Partly because Wadleigh's counterculture political views were in lockstep with those of the concert promoters, he took a huge gamble and put up $40,000 of his own money to get things off the ground.

Lord only knows how much was spent on film alone. He shot literally a world-record amount of footage — 200 hours, said to be 120 miles of celluloid.

Among his crew of 100 cameramen and editors was a fellow whose name you might recognize — Martin Scorsese.

They used four or five cameras for every act. Because of cost pressures, Wadleigh told his crew to shoot only the first 30 seconds of every song unless he gave them a go-ahead based on his snap judgement of whether that song had a decent chance of escaping the cutting-room floor.

At some point, Wadleigh struck a deal with Warner Bros. One report said his deal was “complicated” and that Wadleigh made only a tiny fraction of the profits.

Still, there were profits aplenty. “Woodstock,” released in March 1970, brought in more than $50 million in the United States (almost $328 million in today's dollars) and millions more from foreign rentals.

The reviews were off the charts, too. Entertainment Weekly called it “one of the most entertaining documentaries ever made.”

No one envisioned that kind of financial or critical return. But everyone seemed to know the event was something special.

“It is a myth ... that some groups would not give us the rights to put them in the film,” Wadleigh told one reporter. “The opposite was true — everyone desperately wanted to be in the Woodstock film.

“It was like printing money and ego. The Band, for example, was really pissed off at me that they weren't included. But we had voting sessions back during the editing. We brought in people like Roger Ebert and asked, 'Hey, what do you think?' ”

The filming wasn't always pretty. Wadleigh was reportedly kicked by Pete Townshend and thrown off the stage by Johnny Winter's manager because he thought Wadleigh and his cameramen were just kids messing around. So if you've ever wondered why Winter didn't make the final cut ....

After Woodstock, our boy didn't generate a lot of noise. The only other significant film he made was “Wolfen,” described as “an ecological werewolf thriller,” in 1981. Although it starred Albert Finney and received decent reviews, the general public apparently thought it was too weird.

In subsequent years, Wadleigh wrote a number of screenplays that didn't get made. But he said he hit the jackpot from two “big” films (unnamed) on which he refused a writing credit because he thought his scripts had been “butchered.”

Today, he still has hippie-length hair and a hippie-like optimism. His current passion is, quite literally, saving the Earth. He identifies himself a "scientist activist” and is a staunch advocate of taking immediate, huge measures to reduce pollution and stop global warming.

Wadleigh certainly has some scientific cred. After graduating from Ohio State with degrees in biological sciences and English, and picking up a master's in theater, he finished two years at Columbia Medical School before deciding he could have more impact on society as an activist and filmmaker than a doctor.

Growing up on Kenilworth Drive, one block west of Portage Country Club, Wadleigh was an excellent student and fascinated by politics. His dad, Jack Wadley, was director of the YMCA and his mother was a schoolteacher.

Since then, Wadleigh has lived in more places than an Army brat — from the madness of Hollywood and New York City to the isolation of a ranch in Wyoming and a private island off the coast of Maine ... from cities and towns up and down both coasts to various locations in Europe.

Ten years ago, Wadleigh put together a “director's cut” of "Woodstock" for the festival's 40th anniversary, and several other Woodstock projects have been assembled from his footage. But nothing has come remotely close to the impact of the original three-hour, four-minute “Woodstock.”

It's no exaggeration to say Wadleigh's film turned Woodstock into Woodstock.

Rather than surviving mainly in the memories of the 400,000-plus souls who attended, the event was cemented into the public consciousness because of the movie.

So on Thursday — exactly 50 years from the opening day of the festival — let's raise a toast to both Michael Ferris Wadleigh and that incredible gathering on Yasgur's farm.

Can you imagine? Nearly half a million people in the same place for three days, struggling with all sorts of hardships, and no violence?

In 1969, that sounded nearly impossible. Today, unfortunately, it sounds absolutely impossible.

 

Bob Dyer can be reached at 330-996-3580 or bdyer@thebeaconjournal.com. He also is on Facebook at www.facebook.com/bob.dyer.31