There’s a transcendent moment near the beginning of Woodstock: Three Days of Peace & Music that has nothing to do with rock-concert footage. As Canned Heat’s serenely propulsive ”Going Up the Country” floods the soundtrack, we see images of Max Yasgur’s upstate New York farm, a tide of hippies quietly gathering on the fields. The setting suggests an Eden about to be invaded. Then, as the song winds into its idyllic flute-and-guitar finale, the film cuts to something incongruously beautiful: shots of men and women, in looming silhouette, dancing wildly against an electric-blue twilight sky. For a moment, we catch the ’60s in all their deliquescent glory.
Describing Woodstock as a concert movie is a little like calling Notre Dame a house of worship. In its scope and grandeur, its feel for the paradoxical nature of an event in which half a million middle-class bohemians created their own scruffy, surging community — a metropolis of mud — Woodstock remains the one true rock-concert spectacle, a counterculture Triumph of the Will. I wish I could say that the expanded, 3-hour-and-45-minute version, released to commemorate the festival’s 25th anniversary, contained priceless new musical performances. The truth is that the extra 40 minutes are a letdown, with mediocre numbers by Janis Joplin (unrepresented in the original), the Jefferson Airplane, and even Jimi Hendrix, whose ”Voodoo Chile” turns lugubrious after its wah-wah guitar intro. Where, moreover, is the great Creedence Clearwater Revival?
That aside, it’s thrilling to see this documentary pageant on the big screen again. Director Michael Wadleigh sent his cameras everywhere, and the extraordinarily dynamic split-screen imagery, some of which was orchestrated by assistant editor Martin Scorsese, fuses perspectives in a way that keeps your mind reacting right along with your senses. Much of what sets Woodstock apart from such later concert-film landmarks as The Last Waltz and Stop Making Sense is that, 25 years ago, no one — not the audience, not even the performers — was paying much attention to the fact that they were being filmed.
Perhaps that’s why the movie’s best concert sequences have a kinesthetic spontaneity that has rarely been equaled: the Who’s Roger Daltrey, under red and purple lights, twirling his microphone with messianic virility during ”See Me, Feel Me”; the members of Santana revving each other to greater and greater abandon; and Sly Stone charging into the final rave-up of ”I Want to Take You Higher,” an ecstatic funk groove that must have seemed a novelty amidst this mostly white-boy blues festival — but that, in hindsight, was pointing the way to the rhythms of the future.