Woodstock revisited

Oscar-winner Kopple's docu in limbo since P'gram pulled out of project

Back in February of 1994, almost six months prior to the event that would serve as the centerpiece of her documentary, two-time Oscar-winning filmmaker Barbara Kopple began shooting “Woodstock 94,” the then-tentative title to her film about the music festival that took place Aug. 12-14 near Saugerties, N.Y. Propaganda Films was the producer and Gramercy Pictures was the likely distributor.

But after sinking approximately $1 million into the project, Polygram Filmed Entertainment, which owns Propaganda and whose pictures are distributed by Gramercy, pulled out and left Kopple with 250 hours of unedited film, replete with footage of the entire 56-band lineup that included Metallica, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Nine Inch Nails, Porno for Pyros, Green Day and Bob Dylan.

Now, more than three years after the event, Kopple still lacks a backer to finance the film’s completion and subsequent distribution, and Hollywood intrigue abounds.

But other factors stand in the way of her film seeing the light of day, including Polygram’s ownership-interest in the project.

Several key players have left the Polygram fold in the years since Woodstock ’94 unfurled in a barrage of music, mud and MTV hype, including John Scher, the veteran concert promoter who was president of Polygram Diversified Entertainment (PDE) at the time and the prime mover behind its backing of the festival; senior VP Jeff Rowland, also closely involved with the fest; and Joni Sighvatsson, Propaganda’s co-founder. It was Sighvatsson who, with concert producer Michael Lang, hand-picked Kopple to film the event and began working with her as early as February of ’94.

The PDE exodus might have taken the wind out of the movie’s sails, especially since Scher’s strategy of expanding the division into live entertainment was a thorn in the side of Polygram president and CEO Alain Levy.

But this hasn’t prevented Kopple from assembling a “fine cut” of two hours and 13 minutes. Although she wouldn’t divulge the amount of money required for a final polish, she referred to it as “chump change” in the Hollywood scheme of things.

The boardroom intrigue brings to mind Murray Lerner’s recently released documentary on the 1970 Isle of Wight festival, “Message to Love,” which took 25 years to reach the screen. In a 1996 review, the New York Times called the film a “witty, scathing portrait” of disintegrating ’60s idealism that depicted music biz hustlers squabbling about money and an unruly youth culture “in the process of devouring itself.” Lerner admits that the themes he had in mind “probably were not palatable to a lot of people in the music business.”

Cut to 1994: Having ballooned into a marketing juggernaut fueled by Apple Computers, Philips Media, Pepsi and Haagen Dazs, portraying Woodstock ’94 as an expose of corporate malfeasance and greedy handlers appears easy to imagine. But, as is her wont, Kopple (“Harlan County, USA,” “American Dream”) peels back even more layers surrounding the event, including the portrait of a small town — recently crippled by the closure of IBM and subsequent layoff of 6,000 workers — that saw the concert as an economic savior.

When asked about whether Polygram, which has not seen a frame of the film, might be concerned about being shed in a less-than-favorable light, Kopple says it’s just the opposite. “The film shows Polygram with a human face struggling to be very responsible and discussing everything imaginable about safety, security and services” for the concert attendees.

Also revealed, however, are corporate concerns about the festival’s huge financial risk, the threat of lawsuits in the event of violence, death or sickness, and the “million different things that could happen,” in the words of one Polygram exec shown in the film’s current form.

“Polygram was unclear about the whole festival itself and whether they wanted to go forward with it,” adds Kopple. “But they had to because they had an ironclad contract with Woodstock Ventures, who were the original promoters. But the one thing that became the orphan was the film, because they could stop that.”

In an era of media saturation about all things entertainment-related, rock & roll has lost much of the mystique that made the original Woodstock film so compelling. Phil Joanou, who directed the U2 concert film “Rattle and Hum,” feels that MTV has killed the music documentary genre. “Now it’s something you can turn on and see on six different channels,” he said back when Kopple was in the midst of shooting her rock fest opus. “Back in the ’60s and even the ’70s, music was a mysterious, and even dangerous thing.”

In terms of Woodstock ’94, Propaganda co-founder Sighvatsson surmises that Polygram felt the whole concert/CD/PPV venture as a whole wasn’t the success they envisioned. The album, released on the Polygram-distributed A&M label, sold 608,000 copies. Coupled with MTV’s ubiquitous coverage, pay-per-view availability and a quicky music video of the event distributed by Polygram, the company might have thought Woodstock ’94 was played out. And with the film a year from completion at the time, “they thought, why would anyone want to see a documentary on it?” says Sighvatsson, adding that he didn’t think Polygram had any “editorial concerns. I think it was strictly financial.”

While Polygram has not seen Kopple’s work-in-progress, one person who has, fest-backer Scher, says it’s “extraordinary.” “I think Barbara Kopple is certainly one of the premiere documentarians in the world today, and she has very much captured the spirit of the Woodstock ’94 event,” says Scher. “It’s much more than a music film, although the music is phenomenal in it.” He believes the film has a lot to say both from a sociological point of view and a musical point of view. “An enormous amount of bands broke out of Woodstock ’94, perhaps more than broke out of Woodstock in ’69.”

If Kopple ever harbored any hard feelings about Polygram pulling out, she doesn’t reveal them now. If given the option of buying them out or bringing them back aboard, she clearly prefers the latter.

“I think I have some people who might want to put in the money to finish it, and hopefully they will meet with Polygram in the near future and a deal will be made to keep Polygram in, which is important to me,” Kopple says.

While execs at Polygram or Propaganda didn’t return calls, Polygram released a statement, saying it is “examining all options regarding the completion and distribution of the film.”

Kopple — currently working on a documentary on the recent 50th anniversary of the Cannes Film Festival and with a film documenting Woody Allen’s European tour with a jazz band in the can — figures time is on her side. Leon Gast, who worked with Kopple as a field producer at Woodstock ’94, took 20 years to get his “When We Were Kings,” about the Ali-Forman fight in Zaire, into theaters for similar reasons. But the historical perspective makes Gast’s film all the more riveting.

The working title of Kopple’s film is now “Generations,” and rather than risk drawing comparison’s to Michael Wadleigh’s classic documentary on the original fest, Kopple actually incorporates footage from that film to juxtapose the blissed-out boomers of the ’60s with the Gen X’ers who attended the ’94 event. “They’re a generation of doubters, and they feel there’s nothing wrong with that,” says Kopple about her present-day subjects.

Adds Scher: “With footage from the first ‘Woodstock’ movie, Barbara weaves these two almost diametrically opposed generations and then suddenly the festival happens and, boom, the same thing happens: no violence, it rains, kids are having a great time … only the dancing’s a little bit different.”

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