This weekend marks the 50th anniversary of Woodstock. While there won’t be a celebratory concert marking the occasion, the passing of this milestone has not gone unremarked upon by music industry watchers, pop culture enthusiasts and those who were part of the original festival.
While I was born five years after things got crazy in upstate New York, I certainly had heard of Woodstock growing up. But in the pre-internet days that were the early 80s footage from the event was hard to find on a whim so I hadn’t seen very much of it. The most exposure I received was thanks to Charlton Heston.
The Omega Man, a 1971 adaptation of the Richard Matheson story “I Am Legend”, takes place in the movie’s not-too-distant-future of 1977. In the wake of a biological war between China and the Soviet Union, most of the world’s population was killed while others were turned into terrifying “mutants” hunting Robert Neville (Heston), a survivor who thanks to a vaccine he was working on is still fully human. Neville stays in his fortified bunker at night when the mutants are most active but ventures out during the day.
On one such excursion he goes to the local movie theater and spools up the film that was playing at the time of the outbreak, the 1970 documentary Woodstock. We see this is not the first time he’s done so, as he’s memorized dialogue and talks along with the people on screen. Watching the movie is bittersweet, as it reminds Neville of the world that was.
The Omega Man was a staple of early 80s cable television, so I saw that short clip from Woodstock quite a few times. To a young kid in the suburbs who was raised on Dolly Parton and Buddy Holly, the music looked incredible; Free, spontaneous and unlike the buttoned-down performances I was otherwise used to.
I can’t say it opened up a whole new exploration of the acts that were part of Woodstock for me, though many of them were listened to by me over the subsequent years. Looking back on it, though, it’s a good reminder of how representations of the past in pop culture can provide an important on-ramp for people to explore what came before them.
This isn’t just about having a character in a current film reference a line from Pulp Fiction or something as quick and disposable as that. It’s about a more full embrace of what’s come previously to encourage current viewers to inform themselves in areas they’re not already familiar with.
As conversations continue to be had regarding whether or not mainstream streaming services offer enough in the way of classic films and what that means for our collective cultural identity, we don’t talk enough about whether or not there are opportunities current filmmakers can seize to turn the spotlight on corners that are quickly darkening.
In that regard, Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese and a handful of others are leading the way. Tarantino routinely curates festivals and other events of the kinds of films that inspired him, while Scorsese has led the film preservation charge for decades.
As we mark the 50th anniversary of a defining moment in popular culture, it’s important to note that culture has to play in building off what’s past and offering new audiences something they may not have seen from what’s already come.
Oh, and it’s important to remember that once upon a time a key character building moment in a movie starring “I’ll give you my gun when it’s torn from my cold, dead hands.” Heston involved him enjoying a bunch of hippies rolling in the mud.