‘Taking Woodstock’ is a nostalgic trip to ’60s
It's 1969, and Elliot Tiber, a down-on-his-luck interior designer in Greenwich Village, New York, has to move back upstate to help his parents run their dilapidated Catskills motel, The El Monaco. The bank's about to foreclose; his father wants to burn the place down, but hasn't paid the insurance; and Elliot is still figuring how to come out to his parents. When Elliot hears that a neighboring town has pulled the permit on a hippie music festival, he calls the producers, thinking he could drum up some much-needed business for the motel. Three weeks later, half a million people are on their way to his neighbor's farm in White Lake, N.Y., and Elliot finds himself swept up in a generation-defining experience that would change his life, and American culture, forever. The film features a standout ensemble cast and songs from a score of '60s musical icons, including The Grateful Dead, The Doors, Jefferson Airplane and Country Joe and the Fish -- plus a new recording of "Freedom" from Richie Havens.
Director: Ang Lee
Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes
Rating: R for graphic nudity, some sexual content, drug use and language
This is the way we should remember Woodstock: a sea of people, a river of mud, a mountain of garbage and a whole lotta love.
And that sound echoing from off in the acid-warped distance? It’s the music, man.
Ang Lee’s “Taking Woodstock” is a coming-of-age comedy that roams the backstage and the back-story and sees that epic concert through rose-colored glasses. It’s got every ’60s cause — from bra burning to draft-card burning, environmentalism to gay liberation — and every ’60s movie clich : the ’Nam vet having flashbacks, stoned hippies, hippie-hating cops, parents learning the joys of hash brownies.
There’s nothing like clich s for a warm wallow in nostalgia.
The director of “Brokeback Mountain” adapted Elliot Tiber’s book recalling the event and shows us the concert experience through young Elliot’s eyes. Elliot (Demetri Martin) was a young, newly-out gay artist just returned from the Stonewall Riot that launched gay liberation, struggling to save his parents’ dump of a motel. But the “El Monaco International Resort & Casino,” with its dirty rooms and tatty cabins, was in Bethel, N.Y. And when Woodstock concert promoters lost their planned venue just down the road, it was Elliot who thought to call them, who talked his neighbor Max Yasgur into renting out his dairy farm, all to make a little music and a little history.
“Taking Woodstock” is a movie of characters and context. It was the summer of Apollo 11. Bethel was a moribund village where Elliot ran a chamber of commerce with no real commerce. The culture was divided along a generation gap. That plays out in Elliot’s own family, where his comically mean and cheap mom (Imelda Staunton, a riot) and long-suffering dad (Henry Goodman) resist this “hippie invasion” he has brought down on them.
Eugene Levy plays Yasgur as a trusting, tolerant soul, but one who is cagier than he came off in Michael Wadcleigh’s famed “Woodstock” documentary. There’s Vilma (Liev Schreiber, cool and hilarious in wig and high heels) the transvestite who runs security. Promoter Michael Lang (Jonathan Groff) is an idealized mellow fellow in the prettiest Jewfro in history, literally riding in on horseback to chill everybody out. And Dan Fogler of Fanboys heads an avante garde theater troupe that was there before there was a “Woodstock” and naked before any of the teeming masses who followed.
Even as “Woodstock” gets the mud and the mess, it sugar-coats the drugs and the generational/cultural divide. Lee mixes film stocks and splits the screen, just like the famed documentary about the concert (a concert we never see in this film), and gives us a special-effects acid trip. He has so many players and so many interesting characters that it’s surprising he’s able to do a few of them justice. Even the standard-issue burned-out veteran (Emile Hirsch) has a moment of grace.
That’s the message of the film, too. It was just a moment. But up there on Yasgur’s farm for one long weekend, it really was about peace and love ... and mud and overflowing toilets. Whatever the smelly, wet reality, the legend is what endures. Maybe that’s as it should be.