It’s the most iconic moment in the most iconic movie made about history’s most iconic music festival: Hendrix does “The Star Spangled Banner” at Woodstock, caught on film by the original Woodstock documentarians. The scene has been seen and the sound has been heard for forty years, its significance considered and reconsidered into rhetorical oblivion.
Then you go to Cinerama and watch it on a mile-wide screen and hear it through a zillion-watt 5.1 Dolby Surround sound system and there aren’t enough goose bumps in the world to go around.
Hendrix 70 Live at Woodstock continues its run at Cinerama tonight with shows at 7 and 10 pm. Those three minutes and 31 seconds are worth the price of admission alone. Also worthy is the volcanic “Voodoo Child” preceding. As a one-two combination, those songs offer everything you need to know about Jimi Hendrix: his personal anthem followed by his national anthem.
Hendrix is surprisingly lucid and clear-eyed throughout the performance; doesn’t seem like one of those headband-dipped-in-LSD kinda gigs. The song selection is predictable, though a few improve jams and then-unreleased tunes show up (most notably a blistering “Isabella”). Also illuminating was the 15 or so minutes of context leading into the concert footage provided by band members (Mitch Mitchell, Billy Cox, especially charismatic rhythm guitarist Larry Lee).
Beset by traffic problems and bad weather, the festival schedule was in shambles. Hendrix remained steadfast in his wish to play the weekend’s last set, which meant going on at 9 AM Monday morning, right after Sha Na Na, instead of midnight the night before. A tiny fraction of Woodstock’s 400,000-plus attendees were left. What we see is a small, diverse crowd, depleted by three days of mud and volume and brown acid, who are mostly unmoved until Hendrix veers into “The Star Spangled Banner.” They seemed to recognize
The band was a transitional one; only Mitch Mitchell remained from the Experience, while the pair of percussionists and Lee would never again perform a major concert with Hendrix. Billy Cox, however, went on to play bass in Band of Gypsies, an abbreviation of Gypsy Sun and Rainbows, which Hendrix was calling this ensemble.
At one point early in the film, while breathlessly extoling Woodstock’s earth-shattering cultural impact, one of the talking heads, a promoter, says “It wasn’t about the music.” Which may have been true in the big picture.
Hendrix at 70 argues otherwise: In Hendrix's case, it’s entirely about the music, played with a virtuosity and charisma by a man who’s art has been endlessly exploited since his death. Of course the film is simply another means of exploitation, repackaging footage seen and heard elsewhere. And all that Hendrixsploitation makes a fan cynical. But you see something like this sequence blown up as big and loud and vital as you’re ever likely to experience a moment 40 years gone, and some of that old wonder and worship rushes back.
Of course it’s about the music. We wouldn’t still be here otherwise.