I realize that the 44th anniversary of Woodstock is a couple of weeks away. I will also admit that I was not a part of the million plus people who claim they who were among the 100,000 that actually attended the event. I was getting married in Pasadena that weekend.
But over the last couple of days I had the opportunity to see the re-released movie put out by Warner Brothers.
I admit that I had not seen the movie in a couple of decades. And some of the impressions that I carried in the back of my head were still there. Canned Heat and Santana and Joe Cocker were great. So was Sly and the Family Stone - I am not sure how Sly maintained that level of energy and performance for the sustained period of time - but he did.
There were also some inanities like John Sebastian and Arlo Guthrie who were great musicians if not a bit out of it. There were several commentators who wanted to seem profound but now look odd. And I wonder how some of those people in the movie look today.
But there is a sequence that starts with Janice Joplin's performance and then moves into the guy who cleaned out the porta potties and then shifts into Jimi Hendrix's performance. Hendrix and Joplin died within a month of each other about a year after Woodstock - in September and October of 1970. There are a couple of things which strike me about the sequence that may be a metaphor for the Woodstock generation.
I am not sure why the editors (Martin Scorsese was one of the original editors of the film) chose to include the part they did for Joplin - but the sequence is horrifying. Joplin was a superb singer (and there is indeed a YouTube sequence (sound not video) which purports to present her performance of Piece of My Heart at Woodstock. But the piece the editors chose show someone who could not get close to holding a tune and rambled through some "lyrics" which were almost incoherent cries of desperation. She says in the intro "music is for groovin not for putting yourself through bad changes..." She seems an especially tragic figure.
I am not sure what the point of the sequence on the portapotty guy was. The interviewer asks some questions and the guy who was working answers them politely - but the undercurrent was pretty negative. It is almost a metaphor for what many have called the self-referential generation. There are three undercurrents in the movie - the first is self important - we are changing the world; the second paranoic - I saw the helicopters seeding the clouds to cause rain; the third - mellow. But in many sequences of the movie all three are bound up.
Then you get to Hendrix - who because of an unfortunate bit of editing seems to be playing to an empty crowd. The Hendrix sequence is about 15 minutes and he spends most of the time demonstrating why many consider him to be one of the greatest guitarists in history. From my perspective it is well worth the cost of the whole movie. He uses every inch of the Fender, and all three sets of pick ups and the tremolo bar. He mixes a series of styles and inventions (for example in banjos you call his use of the left hand pull offs (technical term left hand pizzicatos) or hammer ons - he throws those in effortlessly) and a raft of other inventions to make the guitar sing. It is almost as if we got to see him practice on stage but then he throws in the Star Spangled Banner and Purple Haze in almost a mosaic where he shows what all that thinking can lead to - it is a truly amazing piece of video.
I expect that as we begin to approach this 44th anniversary we will see several retrospectives on the festival and all the surrounding hoopla - but the sequence from Joplin to Hendrix actually sums up the event and the movement in pretty good fashion.