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Rockumentaries and Musicals: Woodstock Essay

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Updated: Jun 18th, 2019

During the period of the 1950s, the era of the Classical Hollywood Musicals was changed with the era of ‘rockumentaries’ which specific features responded to the needs of the developed society focused on sexuality, love, and freedom of expression. Rock and roll music emerged as the reaction to the social changes, and the development of rockumentaries as the film genre intensified the process.

The Classical Hollywood Musicals satisfied the needs of the audience during a long period of time, while reflecting the aspects of the society’s progress and people’s attitudes to the relations and definite values. Rockumentaries can be discussed as the reflection of the social trends developed during the 1950s-1960s because the focus on rock and roll music resulted in mirroring the elements of the music and musicians’ images in the form of films.

Thus, Michael Wadleigh’s Woodstock (1970) is an example of a successful rockumentary which attracted the audience’s attention because it depicted the aspects of the life interesting and urgent for the public. In spite of the fact that rockumentaries are characterized by their specific features which are different from the elements of musicals, such rockumentaries as Woodstock have the similarities with the Classical-era musicals in relation to the used themes and sources.

Many rockumentaries can be discussed as similar to the Classical-era musicals because of the topics’ choice and the focus on music as the central element of the film. Thus, the Classical-era musicals depicted the development of the people’s relations, their romantic feelings, their hidden sexual desire, and they intended to focus on discussing certain social questions.

All these aspects were presented in the creative musical form in order to illustrate the elements of the plot or the idea of the musical. According to Grant, the films which used rock and roll music were also worked out to answer the discussed problematic topics and to reveal the themes of personal relations, sexuality, and social issues (Grant 197-198).

However, the manner of discussing these aspects in rockumentaries differs significantly from the techniques used in musicals (Sarchett; Weiner). Nevertheless, the sources of these genres are similar, and the role of music in the film is accentuated. Referring to the example of Woodstock, Plasketes states “Michael Wadleigh’s Woodstock (1970) resembles a romantic musical comedy about a 400,000 member rock group that performs in the country and finds (or found) Utopia” (Plasketes 61).

From this point, the main differences are in the ways to present the information when the key topics discussed in musicals and rockumentaries can be explained with references to the basic people’s instincts and feelings which rule their actions and attitudes.

Thus, the question is in the way to represent and illustrate the definite topic or issue. Grant states that sexual themes were presented in musicals, but they became more explicitly discussed in rockumentaries with references to the idea of rock and roll music as free from limitations and oriented to love and peace (Grant 197-198).

The differences are in methods to provide the message for the public. If musicals were directed toward presenting the images of the people’s energy sublimation, rock and roll music and films were directed toward discussing the question openly and even violently.

Moreover, the iconographic images of rock musicians presented in rockumentaries are significantly different from the images of the actors performing in the Classical-era musicals. Thus, there are no actors in Woodstock, but there are charismatic rock musicians who attract more audience’s attention because of their extreme expressiveness than the imaginative characters presented in the musicals (“Woodstock”).

Although the Classical-era musicals are ideological in their nature, the social and political issues are perceived as more influential with references to rockumentaries which intend to reflect the realities with paying much attention to the details of the people’s life at the background of rock and roll music (Hall; Severn).

Nevertheless, the focus on the community is characteristic for both the musicals and rockumentaries (Telotte; Wert). Thus, “the Woodstock festival, as the film also depicts, can be interpreted as a political statement about the vision of the counterculture to establish a socialist society – a nation within a nation”, and moreover, “the music and images blend to illustrate this sense of innocence and the celebration of the rites of the new communal state of sharing” (Plasketes 61).

In this case, the community in musicals is discussed with references to the ideal family and American dream when the community in rockumentaries is the unity of free people oriented to peace and love.

Musicals and rockumentaries can be characterized by a lot of similarities as well as by differences. Following Michael Wadleigh’s Woodstock (1970), it is possible to state that there are many similarities in topics discussed in both film genres because of their importance for people. Nevertheless, the approaches which are used by the filmmakers are rather different as well as the final variants of the messages provided in order to draw the audience’s attention to the definite social or political issues.

Works Cited

Grant, Barry. “The Classical Hollywood Musical and the ‘Problem’ of Rock and Roll”. Journal of Popular Film and Television 13.4 (1986): 195–205. Print.

Hall, Jeanne. “Don’t You Ever Just Watch?’: American Cinema Verite and Dont Look Back”. Documenting the Documentary 1.1 (1998): 223-37. Print.

Plasketes, George. “Rock on Reel: The Rise and Fall of the Rock Culture In America Reflected in a Decade of ‘Rockumentaries’”. Qualitative Sociology 12.1 (1989): 55-71. Print.

Sarchett, Barry. “’Rockumentary” as Metadocumentary: Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltf”. Literature/Film Quarterly 22.1 (1994): 28-35. Print.

Severn, Stephen. “Robbie Robertson’s Big Break: A Reevaluation of Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz.” Film Quarterly 56.2 (2003): 25–31. Print.

Telotte, Jen. “Scorsese’s Last Waltz and the Concert Genre”. Film Criticism 4.2 (1979): 9-20. Print.

Weiner, Thomas. “The Rise and Fall of the Rock Film”. American Film 1.2 (1975): 25–29. Print.

Wert, William. “The Hamlet Complex, or, Performance in the Personality Profile Documentary”. Journal of Popular Film 3.3 (1974): 257-263. Print. Woodstock. 1970. Web. <>.

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