Taking Woodstock (review)
Some Kind of Wonderful
Maybe it’s totally not true that Woodstock was awesome. Maybe it really was just a bunch of smelly unwashed hippies getting high and ending up slathered in mud and not even being able to hear the music. I dunno. I wasn’t there — I was born the day after the festival ended, and not at the festival, either, as it always seems prudent to mention when the proximity of my birth to that historical event comes up (my parents were a little too old to be hippies). Maybe it wasn’t a watershed moment in American history, when peace, love, and rock ’n’ roll triumphed over greed and war and other icky stuff. Probably it wasn’t, if the sorry evidence of today is any measure.
But so what? So what if it was all a fantasy even then? So what if our perception of that moment in time is today merely wishful thinking? Isn’t it a nice fantasy, that music and comtemplation (even if it’s enabled by LSD) and just chillin’ out with 500,000 of your closest friends might change the world? Isn’t it nice to suppose that if enough groovy serene thoughts were concentrated in one physical place for one discrete moment in time, everything could be put right?
Taking Woodstock indulges that nice fantasy. But not in a totally unrealistic way. It’s nice-fantasy, but also the flipside of nice-fantasy: someone’s got to open their arms to the nice-fantasy, and someone’s got to clean up after it. Meet those nice people.
I admit it: I got completely suckered in to Taking Woodstock, a sort of semifictionalized making-of that famous concert/cultural moment, from a behind-the-scenes, you-never-knew-it-was-like-this perspective. It wasn’t hard for me to put aside my own disenchantment with the Boomers and how it seems they tossed aside that idealism in favor of SUVs and hedge funds watching this laid-back charming but also sharp-edged little flick. Taiwanese-American filmmaker Ang Lee’s (Lust, Caution, Brokeback Mountain) latest foray into the mythos of his adopted country made me feel like I’d missed out on something amazing by being born too late to have been a part of this. And even if that’s a fantasy, it’s okay.
Funny thing is, for a movie that might be all about the rose-colored-glasses fantasy of a bygone time, it’s pretty rooted in everyday practicalities. Based on the book Taking Woodstock: A True Story of a Riot, a Concert, and a Life, by Elliot Tiber and Tom Monte [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon U.K.], it’s the mostly true story of how Tiber — transducted here into Elliot Teichberg (Demetri Martin: Post Grad) — accidentally deliberately ended up playing host to one of the biggest rock concerts of all time. Elliot has returned home from his bohemian life in New York City to the moribund upstate Catskills town where his parents (Imelda Staunton [Cranford, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix] and Henry Goodman) run a ramshackle motel. They’re on the verge of bankruptcy. He’s trying to help them out. He hears about a rock concert that’s been kicked out a neighboring municipality. He calls up the promoters and says, Hey, I’ve got a little town that can maybe help you.
There’s no music here. If that’s the Woodstock you want, you already have the Oscar-winning 1970 documentary by Michael Wadleigh [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon U.K.]. I mean it: there’s really no music here. Lee and screenwriter James Schamus (Hulk, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) made the deliberate decision to avoid that side of the event… but that still leaves plenty left to cover. How do you bring 10,000– no, 50,000– no, half a millon people into the Catskills and show them a good time? Where do you put them all?
The closest you’ll get to the stage is about as close as anyone got that weekend in August 1969: some distant thumping over the horizon. But it’s wonderfully rewarding how close we get to Elliot: comic Demetri Martin makes one of the most idiosyncratic feature debuts I’ve ever seen here, as a young man both determined and confident while also peculiarly vulnerable. The sweet head-shaking-ness with which Lee depicts the odd crew around Elliot is the real attraction of Taking Woodstock: from the terrible theater troupe headed up by Dan Fogler’s (Kung Fu Panda, Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who!) Devon to the all-man tranny (Liev Schreiber: X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Defiance) hired by Elliot as security for the motel to Eugene Levy’s (Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian, For Your Consideration) Max Yasgur, whose dairy farm plays host to the actual concert, a conservative fellow who refuses to listen to any nonsense from his fellow townsfolk about how allegedly terrible these very polite hippie kids are… these are the real people who made Woodstock happen. Even if they are a bit of a fantasy.
Much of the final third of the film is given over to scenes that recent movies have trained us to see as apocalyptic: roads so jam-packed with traffic that no one can move; mobs sleeping rough in overcrowded motel rooms or off the side of the road; people vying for phone lines or fresh water. But it’s not the end of the world here: it just the biggest party ever. And it’s really nice to be reminded of a time when people thought the biggest party every might solve all our problems. Even if we now know that it wouldn’t.