More Hendrix, some Joplin, but would it have killed anyone to add a few extras to one of the greatest rock-doc and propaganda movies ever?

By Bill Wyman

Published October 26, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

"Woodstock: The Director's Cut"
Directed by Michael Wadleigh
Starring the Who, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Santana, Sly Stone, many others
Warner Home Video; widescreen; aspect ratio varies from 1.33:1 to 2.36:1
Extras: Eight new scenes and performances

"Woodstock" the movie is, of course, a piece of propaganda for itself: Like "Triumph of the Will," its maker sees in its large assemblages of people, in their totems and rituals, a significance possibly out of proportion to their actual political or social meaning. Director Michael Wadleigh and his team (including, most notably, Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker) flood the screen with images, using double and triple split screens, irresistible music and almost hallucinogenic crowd scenes to limn a convincing portrait of ecstatic chaos.

Given the continuing resonance of the title word and the film's entirely unexpected reportorial rigor, one can make the argument that "Woodstock" flirts with the realm of great documentary art. In the end it is hard to come away not overwhelmed by both the events it pictures and the titanic filmmaking that brings it to the screen.

Younger readers will want to know that the festival, held in upstate New York in August 1969, featured not one of the rock titans of the time; the Rolling Stones, the Beatles and Bob Dylan were absent. But it did have almost every one of the great artists bubbling under: Sly Stone, the Who, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. And even the comparatively lesser lights caught in the movie -- Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young; Alvin Lee and Ten Years After; Santana; Country Joe and the Fish; and Joe Cocker -- deliver riveting, career-defining performances.

The DVD criminally lacks extras. Would it have killed someone to get a couple of the camera people and Wadleigh to give us some insight into the logistics of this gargantuan effort? The disc's "director's cut" subtitle merely means that there are about 40 extra minutes of scenes and performances, most notably more of Hendrix and some footage of Joplin, who didn't appear in the original movie. But the DVD is still valuable to finally make available to a general home audience the widescreen, multiview format that it demands to be seen in.

The performances, of course, are merely the foundation for the larger ambitions of "Woodstock." The new footage is fine, but it doesn't add anything to what really makes the film, because, in the end, "Woodstock" is not about music. What Wadleigh and his team created, perhaps accidentally, is one of our most pungent social documentaries: They find humanity in the absurd declarations of this or that hippie boy or hippie chick; in the interactions of the kids and the townspeople; and, finally, most absurdly, and most heartbreakingly, in a massive, three-hour film's human heart: a chat with the guy cleaning the portable toilets.

Here, an opportunity for cheap laughs becomes instead a quiet catharsis. The man is questioned neutrally, and he responds in kind, not apologizing as he swishes out crap from the stalls. He's there to tell us one thing. He has two sons: One is in the crowd at the show; the other is flying planes in Vietnam. "He's in the DMZ right now," he tells the camera gamely, his face a sudden wash of pride, fear and confusion. It's a sudden, shocking glimpse of what an unsung stratum of America was going through at the time -- something you might not have expected at this time or place, or in this movie.

Bill Wyman

Bill Wyman is the former arts editor of Salon and National Public Radio.

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