Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Woodstock's Joel Rosenman

Kornfeld, Lang and Rosenman
With the current 40th anniversary release of the Oscar-winning classic Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace and Music on DVD and BluRay—both of which includes the director's extended cut, nearly two hours of unseen musical footage and over an hour of retrospective interviews—Warners went on a publicity blitz that included bringing together many of the people responsible for that seminal weekend on a farm in Bethel, New York (two-plus hours north of New York City). Festival producers Michael Lang, Joel Rosenman, and Artie Kornfeld, studio executive Fred Weintraub, director Wadleigh, film producer Dale Bell, editor Thelma Schoonmaker, sound mixer Eddie Kramer and some of the weekend's musicians were on hand to discuss the event, the film, and the new DVD.

I was able to sit in on the reminiscences of Rosenman, who doesn't look like he's old enough to have been one of the guiding lights of Woodstock in 1969! In addition to telling many terrific stories about that momentous weekend, he also talked about what's coming from the partnership he is still helping to guide, Woodstock Ventures.

Question: How was it re-watching the film Woodstock 40 years later?
Joel Rosenman: While watching Woodstock again on the brilliant DVD that (director) Michael Wadleigh has assembled, I realized that memory is such an odd thing. When you try to remember what happened 40 years ago, it’s inevitably colored by what’s happened since, and it all blends together. Not only that, but Wadleigh didn’t “do” the festival on film as it occurred, but instead did his own interpretation of it. So the movie is not a strict chronological procession from the opening number to the final encore, it’s what he assembled in order to convey in four hours what happened over three days. That is what is so brilliant about the film: he chooses this and chooses that and puts them together, and maybe they happened a day apart, but when you see them together, you say, “Ah, that’s where that was coming from.” So you’ve got the audience coming from one side, the artists coming from another, and the establishment and counterculture coming together: the film is a masterpiece of subtle and laidback manipulation that’s the difference between a true work of art and a mere documentary.

Q: Are there any particular "hiccups" during that weekend that you'd like to discuss?
JR: We had several emergencies throughout that weekend, and one in particular stands out. We were responsible for paying the Who, and I was personally responsible for finding cash for the Who at the last minute. They got paid upon signing 50% and the other 50% upon performance. The managers of the Who and the Grateful Dead looked around and saw that we were probably in trouble financially, and that was not one of our miracles at Woodstock, and made sure that their bands would get paid, because that’s their job. We called to see if they would play double-sets since our goal was to have entertainment onstage constantly as long as we possibly could, far longer than scheduled to give the kids something to enjoy, but I got a reply from them that not only were they not going to play extra long sets but they were not going to play at all because they thought we were broke and didn’t think our check was any good. So that put me in an interesting predicament at 11 at night on Saturday in the Catskills Mountains when there was no cash lying around. I solved it by waking up our banker, who remembered that one of the cashiers’ drawers was not locked in the vault and might have certified checks that were blank. We helicoptered him from his house to the bank at midnight and, sure enough, he found these checks, and a half hour later, I was on my way with these checks in my backpack on my motorcycle and I was so happy to be threading through the crowd toward backstage with Janis Joplin singing and it wasn’t raining—there was a whole lot of things going on and it was just a peak moment for me. I felt that if I worked hard, these problems would get resolved. It didn’t occur to me that weekend that we would fail—that happened the following week, when we looked at the financial numbers!

Q: So this was more a labor of love at first than a successful business venture.
JR: It was clear that we were going to be in debt afterwards: when the smoke cleared, we were about $15 million in debt, using today’s dollars. For our first business venture, it was alarming: it was not the way we planned our business life. Why was I laughing and crying at the same time? But thanks to Fred Weintraub and Artie Kornfeld, at the last minute we got a movie deal, and it turned out that the movie and the record helped us dig out of a deep financial hole over the next 11 years.

Q: Did you feel that you had hired enough security people?
JR: We had enough security for 25,000 people—if that security had shown up.

Q: What else is planned for the 40th anniversary aside from the DVD and BluRay sets of the movie?
JR: There’s a lot of Woodstock going on this summer and this year—in fact, every year. It’s my responsibility to run the partnership, Woodstock Ventures, and I can tell you that rarely a week goes by without some proposal coming in for a concert or another festival, or a movie or a book. There are a lot of books this year, and some movies coming out—there’s Ang Lee’s Taking Woodstock, and Barbra Kopple is also working on one. There will be a number of tribute concerts also. Through, which we launched recently, we’re having a very large event that’s on the drawing boards, part internet and part live, and it will involve a lot more than just music. Luckily for us and the planet, the opportunity for Woodstock is to bring to the kids and adults of the 21st century the same opportunities we brought to the counterculture in 1969. Back then, it was shocking, since it was the first time such a thing happened, but these days, people know about everything, except for the danger to the planet—there’s no sense of immediacy about the environment today. It’s not like being drafted and having your leg blown off in Vietnam. People’s grandchildren might not have clean water in the future, so it’s not a clear and present danger. We have an opportunity to mix entertainment and information, generate a sense of urgency and do something useful for the planet.

Q: What do you see as the legacy of Woodstock?
JR: Our legacy is complicated—it used to be just great music, a large crowd and a beautiful setting, then I had to add in a sense of urgency because there was a tension in that crowd that could have been more aggressive instead of a time of camaraderie. I thought about it, and for me now, our legacy is that this was an insight into the fundamentals of human nature. It really showed me how our species is capable of great things under difficult circumstances.

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