The Big Sick
Finds that laughter-through-tears sweet spot, often in the unlikeliest of places.
The movies are, of course, a time capsule, and I have rarely felt that more sharply than while watching the twenty-fifth anniversary edition of "Woodstock." What other generation has so completely captured its youth on film, for better and worse, than the Woodstock Nation? Watching the film today, for someone like me who also saw it on the day it was premiered, inspires meditation as well as joy, dark thoughts as well as hopeful ones.
The making of the film was a happy accident. I remember meeting the director, Michael Wadleigh, in an editing room up in a loft in New York City, months before the movie was released. He talked about how he and his partner, producer Bob Maurice, threw together a production team at the last moment, and descended on the Woodstock site because they had a hunch it might be more than just another rock concert.
What they came away with was 120 miles of footage, which an editing team headed by Thelma Schoonmaker and Martin Scorsese assembled into a three-hour film. The balance was perhaps 60 percent about the music and 40 percent about the event itself -- about how 400,000 people were drawn to a farm in upstate New York, where the facilities could not remotely sustain or feed them, and where a thunderstorm soaked them, but where somehow they celebrated, as the film's subtitle has it, "three days of peace and music."
This new "director's cut," which will be available on tape and laserdisc, adds an additional forty-five minutes, including sets by Janis Joplin and Jefferson Airplane that were not in the original film. It also expands the film's final performance, by Jimi Hendrix, which includes his pyrotechnic version of "The Star-Spangled Banner."
That performance was attacked by some at the time as a desecration of the national anthem. Hearing it again the other day, I found it the most stirring version of the song I have ever heard. Hendrix tortured his electric guitar to create the sound of bombs bursting in air, as they were at that moment in Vietnam, and like a jazzman he improvised, working in bits of other songs (I've heard this version many times, but only on this hearing did I pick up fifteen notes of "Taps"). As Hendrix plays, the camera shows the last act of Woodstock. Most of the 400,000 have gone home. A few forlorn wanderers walk barefoot across the muddy fields, trying to find shoes that will fit. Trash crews pick up the debris. The event is over. And then the editors slowly reverse the time flow, so that the field fills again, horizon to horizon, with a mass of humanity. It was then and probably still is the largest crowd ever gathered.
It is probable that Woodstock would not have been possible without Vietnam. They are two sides of the same coin: the grinning nun flashing a peace sign to the camera at the concert, and the war. One of the heroes of the film is the Port-a-San man, in charge of servicing the portable toilets. After swabbing out a few units, he confides to the camera that he has a son out there in the crowd somewhere -- "and another one in the DMZ, flying helicopters."
The concert, with its pot smoking, its skinny-dipping, its warnings about "bad acid," its famous shot of a couple disrobing and making love in a meadow, and Country Joe leading a sing-along of "Feel Like I'm Fixin' to Die Rag," was in its own way a peace rally. Without the war to polarize American society, these 400,000 people might not have felt so much in common. I remembered that time when strangers flashed the peace sign to each other, when costume and attitude created a feeling of camaraderie, when it was believed that music made a difference and could affect society. All of that is gone, gone, gone.
So are some of the performers, dead of drugs. Hendrix, of course, and Janis Joplin, who has always seemed weathered in my memory, but here seems touchingly young, because she did not grow older with the rest of us. Others were survivors: Roger Daltry, Joan Baez, Grace Slick, who in the Airplane set looks like a fresh-faced college girl. Even Country Joe McDonald looks young here. It was all so long ago.
The structure of the documentary is roughly chronological. We see the fields being prepared, the stage being built, the massive traffic jams forming. We see crowds trampling over the fences, and there is the moment when the event, conceived as a profit-making enterprise, is officially declared a "free concert." (There is an amusing moment when the late Bill Graham, a concert promoter who always kept his eye on the gate, advises the organizers, facetiously I think, to fill ditches with flaming oil to keep the gate-crashers out.)
"Woodstock" was made at a time before rock concerts were routinely filmed (although earlier documentaries about the Stones, Bob Dylan, and the Newport Jazz Festival pointed the way). The stars were not performing for the camera. Richie Havens casually stops in the middle of a set to tune his guitar. Sha-Na-Na does a cornball double-time version of "At the Hop" and doesn't care how it looks. Joan Baez puts down her guitar and sings "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," and nobody worries that it will slow down the show. Night follows day, day follows night, Hugh Romney of the Hog Farm announces, "What we have in mind is breakfast in bed for 400,000 people." Army helicopters drop food, blankets, medical supplies -- and flowers. Babies are born and no one is killed, and for a moment it seems that the spirit of Woodstock Nation could prevail.
Looking up my old review of the movie, I find that I began it with a quote from the Chicago Seven trial. Accused conspirator Abbie Hoffman is asked where he resides, and he replies, "Woodstock Nation." His attorney asks him to explain to the judge and jury where that is. "It is a nation of alienated young people," Hoffman says. "We carry it around with us as a state of mind, in the same way the Sioux Indians carry the Sioux nation with them..."
Yes, I thought, looking at the old clipping. And look what happened to the Sioux. Michael Wadleigh's "Woodstock" is an archaeological study of that nation, which existed for three days in 1969. Because of this movie, the Woodstock state of mind now has its own history, folklore, myth. In terms of evoking the style and feel of a mass historical event, "Woodstock" may be the best documentary ever made in America. But don't see it for that reason; see it because it is so good to see.
It has a lot of music in it, photographed in an incredible intimacy with the performers, but it's not by any means only a rock-music movie. It's a documentary about the highs and lows of a society that formed itself briefly at Woodstock before moving on. It covers that civilization completely, showing how the musicians sang to it and the Hog Farm fed it and the Port-O-San man provided it with toilet facilities.
And it shows how 400,000 young people formed the third largest city in New York State, and ran it for a weekend with no violence, in a spirit of informal cooperation. The spirit survived even though Woodstock was declared a "disaster area," and a thunderstorm soaked everyone to the skin, and the food ran out. The remarkable thing about Wadleigh's film is that it succeeds so completely in making us feel how it must have been to be there. It does that to the limits that a movie can.
* * * *
"Woodstock" does what all good documentaries do. It is a bringer of news. It reports, it shows, it records, and it interprets. It gives us maybe sixty percent music and forty percent on the people who were there, and that is a good ratio, I think. The music is very much part of the event, especially since Wadleigh and his editors have allowed each performer's set to grow and build and double back on itself without interference. That is what rock music in concert is all about, as I understand it. Rock on records is another matter, usually, but in the free form of a concert like Woodstock, the whole point is that the performers and their audience are into a back-and-forth thing from which a totally new performance can emerge.
We get that feeling from Jimi Hendrix when he improvises a guitar arrangement of "The Star Spangled Banner," rockets bursting in air and all. We get it from Country Joe, poker-faced, leading the crowd through the anti-Vietnam "I Feel Like I'm Fixin' to Die Rag." We get it in the raunchy 1950s vulgarity of Sha-Na-Na doing a tightly choreographed version of "At the Hop." And we get it so strongly that some kind of strange sensation inhabits our spine, when Joe Cocker and everybody else in the whole Woodstock nation sings "With a Little Help from My Friends."
This sort of participation can happen at a live concert, and often enough it does. But it is hard to get on film, harder than it looks. It is captured in "Woodstock," maybe because Wadleigh's crew understood the music better and had the resources to shoot 120 miles of film with sixteen cameras. This gave them miles and hours of film to throw away, but it also gave them a choice when they got into the editing room. They weren't stuck with one camera pointed at one performer; they could cut to reaction shots, to multiple images, to simultaneous close-ups when two members of a band did a mutual improvisation.
And of course they always had the option of remaining simple, even shy, when the material called for it. One of the most moving moments of the film, for me, is Joan Baez singing the old Wobbly song "Joe Hill," and then rapping about her husband David, and then putting down the guitar and singing "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," with that voice which is surely the purest and sweetest of our generation. Wadleigh and company had the integrity to let her just sing it. No tricks. No fancy camera angles. Just Joan Baez all alone on a pitch-black screen.
But then when the occasion warrants it, they let everything hang out. When Santana gets to their intricate rhythm thing, Wadleigh goes to a triple-screen and frames the drummer with two bongo players. All in synchronized sound (which is not anywhere near as easy as it sounds under outdoor concert conditions). And the editing rhythm follows the tense, driving Santana lead. The thing about this movie, somehow, is that the people who made it were right there, right on top of what the performers were doing.
Watch, for example, the way Richie Havens is handled. He is supposed to be more or less a folk singer -- a powerful one, but still within the realm of folk and not rock. So you would think maybe he'd seem slightly less there than the hard-rock people? Not at all, because Wadleigh's crew went after the power in Havens's performance, and when they got it they stuck so close to it visually that in his second song, "Freedom," we get moved by folk in the way we ordinarily expect to be moved by rock.
We see Havens backstage, tired, even a little down. Then he starts singing, and we don't see his face again, but his thumb on the guitar strings, punishing them. And then (in an unbroken shot) down to his foot in a sandal, pounding with the beat, and then the fingers, and then the foot, and only then the face, and now this is a totally transformed Richie Havens, and we are so close to him, we see he doesn't have any upper teeth. Not that it matters; but we don't usually get that close to anybody in a movie.
Moving along with the music, paralleling it sometimes on a split screen, are the more traditionally documentary aspects of "Woodstock." There are the townspeople, split between those who are mean and ordinary and closed off, and those like the man who says, "Kids are hungry, you gotta feed 'em. Right?" And the farmer who made his land available. And kids skinny-dipping, and turning on, and eating and sleeping.
Wadleigh never forces this material. His movie is curiously objective, in fact. Not neutral; he's clearly with the kids. But objective; showing what's there without getting himself in the way, so that the experience comes through directly.
With all that film to choose from in the editing room, he was able to give us dozens of tiny unrehearsed moments that sum up the Woodstock feeling. The skinny-dipping, for example, is free and unself-conscious, and we can see that. But how good it is to see that kid sitting on a stump in the water and turning to the camera and saying, "Man, a year ago I never would have believed this was the way to swim. But, man, this is the way to swim." What you're left with finally, though, are the people. I almost said the "kids," but that wouldn't include the friendly chief of police, or the farmer, or Hugh Romney from the Hog Farm ("Folks, we're planning breakfast in bed for 400,000 people"), or the Port-O-San man, or the townspeople who took carloads of food to the park.
Wadleigh and his team have recorded all the levels. The children. The dogs (who were allowed to run loose in this nation). The freaks and the straights. The people of religion (Swami Gi and three nuns giving the peace sign). The cops (eating Popsicles). The Army (dropping blankets, food, and flowers from helicopters).
"Woodstock" is a beautiful, complete, moving, ultimately great film, and now that many years have come to pass and the Woodstock generation is attacked for being just as uptight as all the rest of the generations, it's good to have this movie around to show that, just for a weekend anyway, that wasn't altogether the case.