Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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WOODSTOCK (1989)

***

With Jimi Hendrix, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, the Who, and others.
Directed by Michael Wadleigh.
(Warner Home Video, color, three hours, $29.95.)

By Robert Christgau and Carola Dibbell

Warners Home Video has baited its 20th-anniversary rerelease of Woodstock with two enhancements: the film's innovative widescreen framing has been preserved, with no concessions to the aspect ratio of the TV screen, and the sound has been remastered into digital stereo. As happens so often, neither gimmick makes much difference. We recommend the new budget price, however.

Woodstock is worth seeing, but it isn't the timeless document '60s nostalgists believe, and it's never been an ideal living-room experience: its sweep cries out for the grandeur of an old-fashioned movie palace. As hip and appropriate as its split-screen techniques were in 1970, the subsequent history of commercials and rock videos has permanently dulled their oh-wow edge. So although it's good to have all the visual information Michael Wadleigh put into the film, at the same time its images are further miniaturized. And although the audio is an improvement, the chief value of this film is cultural, not musical.

It's blasphemy to mention this, but nobody came back from Woodstock raving about the performances. Hendrix's dawn's-early-light "Star-Spangled Banner" is a properly classic climax, but until then they're dicey. One of us admires Ten Years After's boogie statement, the other Santana's Latin-rock statement. Just before his supposed prime, Joe Cocker is at his best. Sly and the Who are vaguely disappointing, Sebastian and Guthrie embarrassing, Baez and Havens awful.

And believe us, younguns, it didn't matter. As one prematurely wise individual in that supposedly faceless mass says: "Why would 300,000 people come just to hear music? I mean, is music that important?" Wadleigh and his interviewers obviously agree: their movie is about the 300,000, and 20 years after, the balance of smug fatuousness and blessed confusion they see still feels not just right but perceptive. Our favorite walk-on is everybody else's, the Port-O-San man, a chubby guy who does a great job because he cares, and who concludes with kind words for his own two sons--one somewhere in the audience, the other somewhere in Vietnam.

Video Review, June 1989