Kopple explores the three generations of Woodstock in My Generation

She’s lived amongst the coal miners in rural Harlan County, Kentucky; stood by the underpaid and overworked meat packers who took a stand against corporate America in Austin, Minnesota; delved deeper into the JFK conspiracy than most others have dared go... She’s also gone several rounds with a side of Mike Tyson few know about and discovered the wild side of Woody Allen.

Documentarian (or “nonfiction filmmaker,” the term she prefers) Barbara Kopple has spent the last quarter century probing the hearts, minds and intentions of the American public, providing nonfiction moviegoer with a personal experience they’re not likely to find elsewhere. Her ability to turn plebeian America heroic and to make accessible some of the world’s most famous personalities has made Kopple one of the most celebrated women in film—and she has two Oscars to prove it. My Generation, Kopple’s latest film, about the three generations of Woodstock, examines just how much the famed music festival’s audience has changed.

Like most of Kopple’s other films, the road to completion on My Generation was not without its detours. Though it was the organizers of the festival itself who enlisted Kopple’s help, it was the festival’s financial backers who almost made My Generation a film that never was.

In January of 1994, Propaganda Films’ Joni Sighvatsson and original Woodstock producer Michael Lang made Barbara Kopple an offer she wouldn’t refuse: they asked her to film the making—and final result—of their latest brainchild, Woodstock ’94. The film, like the concert, would be supported by the generous contribution of then music giant PolyGram. Just one month after extending the invitation, filming on the project began. Says Kopple, “I started filming the behind-the-scenes stuff—PolyGram discussing very important issues like ‘How many condoms do you think will be sold’ and why ‘Ben & Jerry’s is out and Häagen Daz is in.’”

Kopple

Though PolyGram had quickly come on board as the main sponsor of the resurrected music festival, as the concert neared, they “started getting cold feet.” Though their primary concerns were with the could-be detrimental repercussions associated with such a gigantic undertaking—including audience safety issues and the financial risk that PolyGram was taking if the concert did not run smoothly—the contract between PolyGram and Woodstock Ventures was ironclad; there was no turning back. The one aspect the company could annul was Kopple’s project. “They had to go along with the concert but the one thing they could stop was the film—and so they just stopped, Kopple said.”

Unaware of the indefatigable personality they were dealing with, PolyGram informed Kopple that, due to financial reasons, they could no longer foot the bill for her film. Had it been any other director, the motion picture record of Woodstock ’94 probably would have been aborted right there, but according to Kopple “I wasn’t going to let money stop me from doing it, so I just kept going.”

Though “stuck with all this footage and not a penny to my name,” Kopple persisted, “throwing whatever money I had into having the film edited.” Just about the time she finished editing her Woodstock ’94 footage into a comfortable mix between the ’69 and ’94 events, another wrench arose in the form of Woodstock ’99. “I took a deep breath and went and did ’99 with a really small crew—one 16mm camera and two DV cameras. I then had to reopen the film again and begin the editing process all over. But I was glad that happened because, in a way, it just came around full circle.”

Though the majority of My Generation focuses on the ’94 concert—perhaps as a symbol of its milestone meaning, bridging the generation gap between the crowds that flocked before and after—Kopple refuses to take the easy way out and give the audience the viewpoint of just one group. She doesn’t simply focus on the audience, the organizers, the locals whose towns were invaded by Woodstock or the corporations behind the latter two events. Rather, Kopple honestly depicts how each of these groups interacts with the other. While Michael Lang is anxious to “see what people will make of [Woodstock], and whether they’ll carry that traditional spirit,” the people of Saugerties, NY worry about what will happen if some of the attendees decide to break into their homes and kill them. The financial backers and vendors, predictably, are only concerned with financial gain and product sell-through (going back to the lurking condom question, the 80,000 people who did decide to “Rock ‘n’ Roll Them On” was a pleasant surprise to those who only anticipated 10,000—50,000). And though the social and political climate surrounding each concert is certainly as different as the music, the one group that does seem united is the audience.

For Kopple, the biggest difference between the audiences was the level of honesty: “Some of the guys were very honest in ’99 and said that they came to ‘get laid, listen to music and get stoned,’ or whatever. It was probably the same in ’69; it was probably the same in ’94,” says Kopple of the festival attendees. And while each of the concerts is remembered in a distinctive way—’69 as a representation of the free-love generation; ’94 for the commercialism and excessive merchandising; ’99 for the violent acts that were broadcast on television sets across the world—each generation is essentially the same.

When questioned as to the seeming cynicism that exists in the minds of the audience members of the latter two concerts—particularly the ’99 event—Kopple is quick to construe this seeming animosity in a completely different way. “My feeling is that all of us—no matter who we are—want to get together and be part of a community and have a sense of ritual and be with people that we like and then listen to music that we love, no matter what that music is. In 1969, people had something to hang their hat on because it was the women’s movement and the war in Vietnam. In ’94 and ’99, there were all sorts of other problems: everything from AIDS, so you can’t even be intimate with people, to environmental issues to sort of ‘the corporate takeover,’ as they say in the film, of the music industry.”

Kopple goes on to point out that, contrary to popular perception, even the 1969 event was not completely peaceful. “In ’69, they burned down hamburger stands; in ’99 they burned from within. Even though this wasn’t part of the film, women were reported to have been raped in 1969 and also in 1999. So I think we’re all the same—no matter what generation we come from… I think it’s all of us just trying to find ourselves in our own skin, no matter who we are and no matter how old we are.”

For more information on My Generation, please visit www.3woodstocks.com. MM