Woodstock movie: Best performances ranked

A lot of baby boomers talk about the Woodstock Music and Art Fair’s Aquarian Exposition as if they were there, but the fact is most people just saw the movie. 

The three-day rock concert, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this month, was actually a financial bust. Way too many kids showed up (false rumors of a seldom-seen Bob Dylan added kindling), the border fence got knocked down, and facilities were so overtaxed it became a free concert. Then the rain rolled in and turned it into a big mess. But the power of filmmaking made it seem like paradise on earth. And who knows, to fans who actually were there, maybe it was?

Director Michael Wadleigh collected 120 hours of footage for the 1970 documentary Woodstock, and six editors (including a young Martin Scorsese) whittled it down to a 185-minute film, incorporating split-screens to get as many moments with festivalgoers in as possible. The release of the movie, along with a triple-record soundtrack album and a second double album, put Woodstock-the-corporation back in the black. But Woodstock-the-brand was already secure, in part because the people didn’t care about any of that. Lower your cynicism for a few hours, watch this film, and you might actually believe that music, kindness, sex, grass, and good vibes can change the world.

Wadleigh’s Woodstock has been re-released a number of times in various forms. The version most readily available now on major streaming platforms is a 224-minute cut called Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace & Music – the Director’s Cut, 40th Anniversary Revisited. It’s a mouthful, but it earns it. Ahead, we rank all of the musical performances from the doc. If the placement makes you upset, try not to get uptight, man. 

25. “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” – Joan Baez

Joan Baez meant well, but watching her zoom up and down her vocal register hitting keys only measurable with an electron microscope on this a capella version of a classic African-American spiritual is, oh, let’s just say, not exactly a highlight. The song, which dates to 1865, is commonly credited to Wallace Willis, a member of the Choctaw freedmen (people of color who had citizenship within the Choctaw Nation). The folk revivalism scene, of which Baez was a foundational member, turned it into a Civil Rights anthem. Years later, Eric Clapton made it a reggae hit, which is also a little weird, but at least you could tap your foot to that, unlike Baez’s free-form version here.

24. “Uncle Sam Blues” – Jefferson Airplane

Jefferson Airplane was the band representing the San Francisco scene in 1969 (possibly even more than the Grateful Dead). What stood out was their use of multiple vocalists — Grace Slick and Marty Balin, mostly, but also Paul Kantner and Jorma Kaukonen. Kaukonen was a revolutionary guitar player for the period, but as a singer — at least in this clip, which was not part of the theatrical release — his low howls don’t quite connect. This number, a slow blues burn, is also a little sleepy, and its anti-war/anti-draft sentiment is far better expressed by other tunes.

23. “I’m Going Home” – Ten Years After

It will be controversial to some that this isn’t in the top five, as many consider Alvin Lee’s guitar jam one of the high points of Woodstock. It starts out great, but turns into a whole lot of noodling with nothing to say. Lee isn’t too dynamic of a singer, either. I won’t deny that its prime real estate placement probably influenced a lot of classic rock shredders, proggists, or even early metalheads, but this is just bad blues, and it goes on for close to 12 minutes.

22. “At The Hop” – Sha-Na-Na

Sha-Na-Na is mostly remembered, if they are remembered at all, as a weirdo 1950s doo-wop nostalgia act that had a late ’70s/early ’80s variety television show. They fit somewhere in between Donny and Marie and The Muppets. And here they are — jogging on stage in split-screen — in the middle of the most important countercultural phenomenon of the century?! In a movie filled with intentional humor, the reminder of “oh, yeah, Sha-Na-Na” always gets the biggest laugh.

21. “A Change Is Gonna Come” – Canned Heat

Canned Heat were an important group of the era and their tune “Goin’ Up The Country” is one of the main anthems in the Woodstock movie, but Wadleigh used the studio recording for the montage. Lead singer Bob Hite is a mountain of a man with a smile and a beard that wouldn’t seem out of place in today’s Austin scene. When a spaced-out fan runs up on stage to dance with him during this blues standard, he waves security off, gives him a bear hug, and even lets him bum a Marlboro from his shirt pocket. It’s one of the film’s great moments.

20. “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” – Crosby, Stills & Nash

The other anthem of Woodstock is “Woodstock” by Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, written by Joni Mitchell. “Wooden Ships” is also in the movie, too, but they are both the studio versions. Neil Young was adamant not to be in the film for Lord knows whatever reason, but we do get CSN doing this classic tune. It’s very good, but it isn’t perfect. The harmonies are a smidge off and Stephen Stills even calls to the sound guy for “a little less bottom” in the middle of the performance. I do love how they emerge from darkness, on what was only the supergroup’s second gig. It was 3 o’clock in the morning and basically the debut of a whole new sound that would represent the Woodstock era.

19. “Handsome Johnny” – Richie Havens

A gorgeous melody from one of the era’s great folk singer’s, Richie Havens’ “Handsome Johnny” is a powerful anti-war anthem off his 1966 album Mixed Bag. (Bar trivia patrons, take note: it was co-written by actor Louis Gossett Jr.!) Havens was the first act to perform, and this is the first bit of “live music” in the film. It’s a perfect way to kick off the movie. He’s already rhythmically strumming before he reaches the microphone, as if the music of Woodstock existed before we tapped into it.

18. “Woodstock Improv/Villanova Junction” – Jimi Hendrix

Jimi Hendrix’s end-of-the-festival/end-of-the-decade mind-meld with his guitar is a strangely melancholy affair. Something to consider is that Hendrix, appearing with his newly formed Gypsy Sun and Rainbows group (later known as Band of Gypsys) didn’t actually take the stage until 9AM Monday morning. We like to think of Woodstock as a freewheelin’ revolutionary love-in with everyone living off the land, but the truth is a lot of people had already packed up to go to work by the time Jimi hit the stage. This section of his set has him blazing solo on free-form guitar. The “improv” is an experiment in soundscapes, first rising scales, then cacophony, then Spanish influence, then full-shredding. Everyone from Prince to Eddie Van Halen to Sonic Youth cribbed from this. The rest of the band picks up as the tension rises, segueing into the powerful, somber blues of “Villanova Junction.” For pure instrumentation, this is one of Woodstock‘s highlights.

17. “Rock and Soul Music” – Country Joe and the Fish

“Rock and Soul Music” is not exactly a great song. It almost sounds like “insert generic ‘60s rock here” for a cheap TV show with a flashback scene. But there’s something special about how it fits in with Woodstock‘s larger edit. It is preceded by a split-screen, where on one side the producers admit that they’ve fouled up, having underestimated the draw of the concert. On the other side of the frame, in what can only be described as “peep art,” is free love in the tall grass. Down with money and down with pants! When this little story concludes, we hear a flash of Country Joe and the Fish’s tune “Marijuana!” (literally, they just shout the word) then we go into this James Brown-ish track with pseudo-Doors keyboards. 

16. “Joe Hill” – Joan Baez

The 1960s counterculture movement wasn’t just about sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll. It was also in protest of America’s involvement in Vietnam. Joan Baez begins her version of this famous ballad about a labor organizer (previously sung by Paul Robeson) by talking about her husband David Harris “doing fine,” and then points to her belly to say “we’re doing fine, too.” What she is referring to is her unborn son Gabriel, but also about David’s arrest about a month earlier. (He was incarcerated for refusing military induction, and ultimately served 15 months in prison.)

15. “Won’t You Try/Saturday Afternoon” – Jefferson Airplane

The intro to this tune, after Grace Slick promises some “morning maniac music” (the set started at 8AM), begins with pure psychedelic bliss. Each member of the group is shot in close up as they caterwaul, harmonize, and groove. Slick’s usual straight black hair is in an unexpected near-spherical frizz, and Paul Kantner is wearing a groovy blue headband. About half-way through it breaks down into a freestyle electric wail. If you are on the right wavelength (and, hopefully, by this part of the movie you are) it is the epitome of far out.

14. “The ‘FISH’ Cheer/I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-To-Die Rag” – Country Joe McDonald

Here’s one of Woodstock’s weirdest facts: Country Joe McDonald is the only act to have had two sets. On day three he was with the Fish, but on day two (when he performed “The ‘FISH’ Cheer,” confusingly) he was a solo act. “The ‘FISH’ Cheer” is just a good bit of anti-authority cussing (maybe even proto-punk?), and while the tongue-twister “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-To-Die Rag” may not be elegant song craft, it certainly evoked the gallows humor of the Vietnam generation. It was co-editor Martin Scorsese who came up with the idea of utilizing a bouncing ball over the lyrics to add to the singalong nature. It’s an iconic ‘60s moment from an artist that, let’s face it, may have slipped into the memory hole had he not been included in this film.

13. “Work Me, Lord” – Janis Joplin

Janis Joplin was unhappy with her performance at Woodstock and demanded not to be included on the soundtrack albums or in the original film. Well, the good of the many outweigh the good of the few or the one; she’s here in the director’s cut and she’s fantastic. Joplin emerges from darkness, checking in with her audience. “Are you staying stoned and have you got enough water and a place to sleep and everything?” See, she cares! “Work Me, Lord” is not one of her better-known hits (it was written for her by the Electric Flag’s Nick Gravenites for her second album) but it is a remarkable gospel tune, and a hell of a workout for her full, powerhouse emotional style. There are moments watching Joplin’s face when she looks like a teenager, then a moment later a woman with a full life bearing down on her. 

12. “See Me, Feel Me/Listening to You” – The Who

The folk scene and the psychedelic scene don’t quite sync with the rock opera Tommy‘s vibe, but the Who’s inclusion in Woodstock is nevertheless a highlight. Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend make their entry in still images, bodies hurtling through space. We don’t get the full three parts of the “We’re Not Gonna’ Take It” suite, but, honestly, the final two segments are the best bits. What’s great about this performance is the reminder that for all of Tommy‘s grandness, the Who were still a thunderous rock band. Townshend is ripping those power chords with windmill arms, bassist Pete Enthwistle sounds like a mountain, and drummer Keith Moon has the energy of ten rampaging toddlers. Roger Daltrey’s fringe white costume takes on an avian quality as the medley makes its powerful climax.

11. “Younger Generation” – John Sebastian

Sebastian, an unannounced performer who just, like, showed up, wins high placement on this list with the help of his introduction. Blitzed out of his mind on happiness, he emerges looking something like Scooter from The Muppets, mumbling about how beautiful everything is and how they’ve created paradise. But like a good camp counselor he also implores everyone to clean up after themselves. Next he starts rappin’ about how his mind has been blown that some chick just gave birth, man, and how “that kid is gonna’ be far out.” As he segues into “Younger Generation” we see images of hippies with their romping nude babies in this temporary heaven. It’s a really sweet moment.

10. “Freedom/Motherless Child” – Richie Havens

Woodstock, from a production point of view, had its share of struggles; none of the acts could get there by car, they had to use choppers. When Richie Havens took the stage as the first act he was told to go long. Nobody was there yet to go on after him. Eventually he ran out of songs to play, so he just started jamming on a chord and wailing the word “Freedom!” And it sounded great. This triggered a memory of “Motherless Child,” a Spiritual that was popularized by folk revivalist Odetta. He blended the two into a medley and created an anthem.

9. “Higher/Music Lover” – Sly & the Family Stone

Let it be known that putting these entries in a “ranked list” is officially an impossible task at this point. Isn’t the whole peace-and-love thing supposed to represent an end to such meaningless competition? Well, one thing that brings joy to my wounded heart is Sly & The Family Stone’s rousing R&B/funk/rock/jam explosion. This mini-medley is the second song they play, and it is slightly lower on the list because much of it is simply a beat with Sly talking to the crowd. It’s the sort of thing that is absolute bliss if you are in the audience, but can be a little repetitive watching at home.

8. “Purple Haze” – Jimi Hendrix

It’s the biggest classic rock staples to appear in the movie but it rarely sounds quite like this on oldies radio. It emerges with the shearing, scraping chrome of high-tension electric guitar zooming at lightspeed through time and space. Hendrix’s solo is more rhythmic than it appeared on the Are You Experienced? album, almost predicting how one of his great interpreters, Stevie Ray Vaughan, would later develop his style. What’s more amazing is just how laid back Hendrix looks as he plays, as if this is all so simple. 

7. “Summertime Blues” – The Who

Led Zeppelin didn’t play Woodstock but they didn’t have to. Even they couldn’t have been as heavy as the Who were here. It’s funny that the most thunder and fury moment of the entire weekend is a cover of an old 1950s rockabilly tune. Yet it’s a perfect vehicle for mayhem. Daltrey looks like fireworks with the fringes on his jacket spinning along with his microphone, Keith Moon is in absolute overdrive, and John Entwistle, lit in a deep red filter, is practically satanic delivering his growling backing vocals. Then there’s Townshend, dressed in mechanic’s overalls for some reason, jumping around like a lunatic, and appearing in iconic freeze-frame on either side of Daltrey.

6. “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” – Jimi Hendrix

While not as famous as “Purple Haze,” this track — which was cut for time in the theatrical release — is arguably Hendrix’s finest tune, and this version is all propulsion and electricity. It’s the mighty Hendrix’s first appearance in the film and he is is such a commanding presence. At one moment during his fiery solo he just stops strumming. He’s still working the frets, though, and the sound is the same. Is he … playing the guitar with his mind? A sorcerer, truly. At the end he starts playing with his teeth, just to mess with you.

5. “Coming Into Los Angeles” – Arlo Guthrie

It’s not the electric wizardry of Hendrix, but an undeniable high point of Woodstock. First, this song has a terrific, infectious melody. Next, there’s the visuals. For some, “Coming Into Los Angeles” is marijuana’s national anthem. Don’t say Woodstock isn’t educational; it’s during this segment where you’ll learn how to make a pipe out of aluminum foil and a pen. What’s best, though, is Arlo himself, Woody Guthrie’s kid, quasi-movie star from Alice’s Restaurant, facing the world, representing the local Hudson Valley music community. (The Band was there, too, but they aren’t in the movie.) “It used to be a walk down the road trip,” he says of the folk scene in one of the few interviews in the middle of a song. Then, the biggest laugh of the entire film: “The New York State Throughway is closed. [Beat.] Isn’t that FAR OUT?!” 

4. “With A Little Help From My Friends” – Joe Cocker and the Grease Band

Put the theme to The Wonder Years out of your head and try not to think of John Belushi’s over-the-top impression. Look at this performance for what it is and you’ll recognize its brilliance. It starts off like it might be trouble, with Cocker mumbling and clearly bombed out of his skull. Then there’s the organ and guitar build on this emotional re-arrangement of the somewhat doofy Ringo-sung Beatles tune. Cocker, a sweaty mess with his feet glued to his place on stage, gives it his absolute all, with gravely, full-throated screams and deep rumbles. 

3. “Soul Sacrifice” – Santana

Here’s an example of everything just working out right. Santana was an unknown band; their first album hadn’t even been released yet. Their manager, Bill Graham, had been asked by the main Woodstock producers for help securing acts, and he agreed so long as his new project got a slot. They were the first major band to mix in Latin grooves with psychedelic rock, and the energy is infectious. The instrumental “Soul Sacrifice” highlights guitarist Carlos Santana, legendarily tripping on acid at the time (he had visions of his guitar as a snake) and drummer Michael Shrieve who was only 20. Then there’s the way it’s shot: the cameras are up on stage, embedded with the band. There appears to be no end of performers. Just how many people are in this group? (The answer is six.) The chaos adds to the spontaneity of the jam. Then we cut to the audience, with typical lusty shots of hippie chicks losing their minds but also — and I swear I’m not making this up — a shot of a naked dancing man holding a sheep. Woodstock!

2. “The Star-Spangled Banner” – Jimi Hendrix

With so much anti-war and anti-capitalist sentiment in the interview footage, it’s understandable to think that Jimi Hendrix shredding the national anthem might be something of a gag. It isn’t. Time and again the squares in town remark that the kids at the farm are “good kids, good Americans.” Sure, they may wear their hair long, but their friendly nature and zeal for freedom reinforces the concept of American exceptionalism. (Keep in mind that Hendrix spent a year in the Army, trained as a paratrooper and received a Screaming Eagle patch.) So I don’t think “The Star-Spangled Banner” is anything but respectful, but it is absolutely transformed. As Hendrix bends the notes and expands the melody, it mutates into the avant-garde. At its most squealing it is hardly recognizable. But those first echoey notes, which have been used for years as shorthand to represent “Woodstock,” is an aural cliché for the 1960s. It’s amazing to think this concert was just a month after Neil Armstrong landed on the moon. His “one small step” dispatch is another sound bite we’ve heard so many times it’s almost meaningless. They make perfect bookends. Apollo 11 is the apex of the straight world, thousands of scientists and government agencies burning though resources to propel humanity outward. Woodstock was a patched-together near-calamity from the grassroots, a miracle that somehow came together with youth and idealism and bare feet in the Garden. There’s no better way to represent that than a new national anthem.

1. “I Want To Take You Higher” – Sly & the Family Stone

Despite the symbolism of Hendrix reworking Francis Scott Key and John Stafford Smith, Woodstock reminds us that high energy funk is always slightly preferable to atonal feedback. To that end: the award for best musical moment in the film goes to Sly & the Family Stone. “I Want To Take You Higher” comes straight out of Santana’s “Soul Sacrifice” and only builds on that incredible jam. Shot late at night (3:30AM) in low lighting, we start with a close-up on Sly and never quite get a full view of just how many musicians are up there. (There were seven, but it feels like more, and they are all wearing awesome shiny outfits.) Cynthia Robinson and Jerry Martini on horns emerge from silhouette, Larry Graham’s bass rumbles like a demon (at one moment Sly seems shocked by one of his killer fuzz-bombs), and he’s hopping around with far greater elegance than Pete Townshend, while also wearing a feather-tipped hat. Greg Errico’s drumbeat should be registered as a lethal weapon and Rose Stone looks like she’s trying to murder her tambourine. Guitarist Freddie Stone just looks like he’s having fun, bringing some serious wah-wah funk when the time comes. Sly’s keyboard eschews that psychedelic ‘60s sound for full-throated church organ, and when he throws his arms up the fringes on his jacket make him look like an eagle. There are a lot of high energy performances in Woodstock but “I Want To Take You Higher” feels like it is going to explode right off the screen. Boom Laka-Laka-Laka indeed!

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