Fifty years ago, when several hundred thousand music fans descended on Max Yasgur’s dairy farm in Bethel, New York, for the Woodstock Music and Art Festival, Queen was nearly a year away from its first performance, Elton John had yet to release an album in the U.S., and Bruce Springsteen was in a band called Steel Mill.
Although none of these three iconic musical acts performed at Woodstock, they can help explain the impact the festival has had over the past 50 years – not just on rock’n’roll but on American culture. The reason why is because all three of these recording artists are the subjects of popular motion pictures released in the 12 months preceding Woodstock’s 50th anniversary – Bohemian Rhapsody, which tells the story of Freddie Mercury and Queen; Rocketman, a biopic about Elton John, and Blinded by the Light, the true-life tale of how Bruce Springsteen’s music changed the life of a Pakistani teen living in England. Add the most recent remake of A Star Is Born and the Beatle-themed Yesterday to the mix, and that’s a lot of rock’n’roll playing on the big screen.
By comparison, when Woodstock Nation was born in 1969, the year’s 10 top-grossing films included Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Hello Dolly and True Grit. Albeit, a few of the year’s popular movies did break the mold, among them Easy Rider and Midnight Cowboy, but they were exceptions to the status quo. In 2019, films that feature sex, drugs and rock’n’roll no longer are counter-culture; they are the culture that was spawned at Woodstock and evolved over the next 50 years.
However, Woodstock’s place in popular culture generally is reduced to images of wild rock stars, tie-dyed shirts and crowds of young people glassy eyed on music and other substances. These images are real, but they are the images of the moment. In many ways, the images are much like the horse race issues that dominate political journalism in America. All too often, journalists write about polls, fundraising numbers and endorsements rather than the substantive public policy challenges confronting the nation. Likewise, the story of Woodstock is more than music, crowds and drugs.
The popularity of current films featuring rock’n’roll attests to the influence Woodstock has had on American culture, and no film does it better than Blinded by the Light. Whereas movies such as Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman pull back the curtains on superstars and allow audiences to peek inside the worlds of famous performers, Blinded by the Light tells the story of an average teen in a working class family who finds comfort and inspiration in the songs of a man who grew up an ocean away on another continent.
For those who want to know what Woodstock was like, the film and album released in the aftermath of the festival will do just fine. But to learn what Woodstock truly has meant over the past 50 years, Blinded by the Light, which opens in the U.S. on Aug. 16, exactly 50 years from the middle date of the three-day Woodstock festival, is a much better option.