A little over 50 years ago today, half a million people traveled to a quaint little town in New York State to celebrate a weekend of peace, love, and rock n’ roll (including Seattle’s own Jimi Hendrix!) at what is arguably the most iconic music festival in American history: the Woodstock Festival. This legendary event has spawned countless pop culture references and works of art, including a full-length feature directed by local filmmaker Leslie Bloom, a Portland native who now lives on Mercer Island.
The award-winning film is titled Woodstock or Bust, and tells the story of two best friends as they hop in their Mustang convertible, heading east to pursue their musical dreams in that legendary summer of ’69. Up-and-coming stars Willow Shields and Meg DeLacy portray this camaraderie onscreen. The story is fictional, and the main characters are teenagers. But some of this fun film was inspired by Bloom and her real life best friend, Michelle Curtis Purvance, also born and raised in the Pacific Northwest. Few of us can say that we’ve had a bond last for half a century. But this director and musician pair are real-life #friendgoals.
The idea for the film was born when Bloom, who has been working in the film industry in various capacities for nearly 40 years, heard the music her friend was working on: “When I visited [Michelle] and she said she had these songs I thought, how can we make a movie around this? I had a lucrative divorce so I had the money…I was thinking this is my opportunity to really make my opus. If I only make one film this was gonna be it, right?” Woodstock or Bust features seven of Purvance’s original tracks. Bloom not only got to make a film but to support Purvance’s work, something Purvance says her friend has been doing all along: “In real life she was very supportive…we started playing guitars together at 12. We played at the Jewish community center, and the retirement homes [and other places]. I hope young women see too; the power of that, of the support of a friendship…I always thought of it as the sum of the parts is greater than the whole because it was, with her. Me alone didn’t make the 50% of what we were together. Not even close.”
Music, of course, was the main draw of Woodstock and is central to the film. It isn’t easy though: Budgetary concerns make things especially challenging: “Originally I had 10 or 12 classic rock ‘n roll songs in there, like Dylan and the Stones and The Doors and I thought this film can’t live without [those]. It’s all a matter of how much money you want to spend on those kind of tracks…The doors was $75,000. And that was a cover of the song! Not even Jim Morrison singing it. There’s a price tag for those songs. So I cut ¾ of those songs out of the movie and I used local Northwest bands for some of them.” And what’s more, renting 1960s cars costs $250 per car per day, and paying people to be extras costs $100 per person per day. Those expenses—music and otherwise—add up, and don’t allow small filmmakers as much freedom and flexibility.
Like music, friendship is a focal point, and Bloom notes that her film is a stark contrast to other popular pieces that highlight only the negatives, “Most movies about female relationships like to focus on the bad ones, the catty ones. [But] one reviewer called it “the teenage Thelma & Louise.”
There is an expectation of women to make a certain kind of movie, but the film industry is not easy for women in general. Though things are shifting, there are still barriers that reflect gender bias, and the dearth of women filmmakers is one glaring outcome. Thirty percent of directors are women and according to Forbes, women have directed only 12% of the top grossing films. Bloom mentions that women do not have equal pay. She also adds, “I just think it’s hard for women who want to direct because nobody’s going to give you money to make a film until you’ve made a film. And even then you can make shorts until you’re blue in the face, short films which is all independent filmmakers can afford unless they have best friends that are wealthy enough and trust them enough to give them a million dollars to do a picture. I may not make my money back on this and I was well aware of that going in, and I thought if I lose $500,000 at least I have this experience of the last three years. But it’s just hard. Not only because you’re a woman. It’s just hard to be an independent filmmaker.”
As for Bloom and Purvance, they drove cross-country from Seattle in their fun painted car to Woodstock’s 50th anniversary celebration, where Bloom’s film was screened outdoors and she was honored with 20 other creatives who made work around the iconic 1969 festival.
Earlier this year Michael Lang, the man who created and organized the festival, passed away but his legacy has remained strong across generations. HBO released a Woodstock documentary last year; Netflix released yet another one just last week. And Woodstock or Bust is still available to stream across multiple platforms. Bloom’s film seems to fit right in with the zeitgeist and what even Lang’s incredible vision could likely not have foreseen: “I think the takeaway is live your dream, always live your dream. People who get nostalgic about it and want to relive those moments, those youthful moments—they’re all in there ’cause I lived them all. And this one woman said I can’t quit thinking about your film. I said ‘why?’ She said ’cause it was so real of the time.”