A Tall Tale: Taking Woodstock

Taking Woodstock movie poster

 

Ang Lee’s Tak­ing Wood­stock is based on Elliot Tiber’s mem­oir Tak­ing Wood­stock: A True Story of a Riot, a Con­cert, and a Life, that pur­ports to be the untold story of how the Wood­stock music fes­ti­val came to Bethel, NY, in August 1969. Tiber claims he was the cru­cial go-between that intro­duced the festival’s orga­niz­ers to Max Yas­gur, owner of the farm that became the site of the famous three days of music, peace, love, mud, brown acid, and traf­fic jams.

Even if only a por­tion of Elliot’s tall tale is true, it’s incred­i­ble that it has not been dra­ma­tized before now. In his ver­sion of events, an ordi­nary, meek kid becomes the acci­den­tal mid­wife of one of the biggest cul­tural events in mod­ern his­tory. Mix in most of the hot-button issues of the time — the hip­pie vs. square cul­ture clash, gay awak­en­ing, anti-semitism, the mafia, and fall­out from the Korean and Viet­nam Wars — and you end up with what should have been a richly defin­i­tive movie deal­ing with the era.

Demetri Martin and Paul Dano in Taking WoodstockTrip­ping the light fan­tas­tic in the magic bus

That Tiber’s account of the fes­ti­val is vig­or­ously dis­puted by almost every­one involved (and sober enough to recall events now) is beside the point. The story is a good one, but the film never seems to cap­ture the joy, anx­i­ety, or excite­ment of the moment. So what if it isn’t true? We already have a sup­pos­edly objec­tive doc­u­men­tary on the fes­ti­val (but more on that below).

The biggest prob­lem is Demetri Mar­tin, who despite his suc­cess as a come­dian and con­trib­u­tor to The Daily Show, pos­sesses approx­i­mately as much star charisma as a plank. To be fair, his char­ac­ter is writ­ten to be repressed and buttoned-up, but the kid remains bor­ing even after what ought to have been a trans­for­ma­tive num­ber of enlight­en­ing expe­ri­ences, includ­ing his first gay kiss, first acid trip, and betrayal by his mother. Emile Hirsch appears in a small role as a psy­cho­log­i­cally scarred vet, and clearly would have been bet­ter in the lead role. Even Elliot’s par­ents are both more com­pelling char­ac­ters than he. His father’s (Henry Good­man) inter­ac­tions with the bur­geon­ing coun­ter­cul­ture awaken him from the vir­tual coma his life had become, and his mother (Imelda Staunton) is a self-destructive hoarder, which the film links to Holo­caust survivor’s guilt.

Demetri Martin and Liev Schreiber in Taking WoodstockThat’s a man, baby!

Lee’s visu­als are fairly straight­for­ward, mak­ing it rather jar­ring when split-screen sequences visu­ally allude to Michael Wedleigh’s doc­u­men­tary Wood­stock (1970). Tak­ing Wood­stock sup­ports Wedleigh’s the­sis that the mostly harm­less hip­pies that sought a week­end of peace and music instead found hos­tile locals and a com­bat­ive, con­de­scend­ing press. But other moments in Tak­ing Wood­stock serve to under­cut the orig­i­nal doc­u­men­tary, such as when Wedleigh is seen coach­ing a trio of nuns to flash the peace sign. If that iconic image was staged, what else might have been false or exag­ger­ated? Tak­ing Wood­stock may be a tall tale, but it also makes clear that Wedleigh’s film isn’t nec­es­sar­ily reli­able either.

Tak­ing Wood­stock ends with orga­nizer Michael Lang (Jonathan Groff) about to mount another free con­cert fea­tur­ing the Rolling Stones. The Wood­stock fes­ti­val may have been chaotic, but it was suc­cess­ful inso­far that it proved peo­ple could gather in mas­sive num­bers and cel­e­brate pos­i­tively and peace­fully. Lang is ener­gized by what he achieved, but the mood is not so opti­mistic for those of us that know how it all turned out. The chaos and mur­der of the Alta­mount débâ­cle that marked the end of the Sum­mer of Love would be doc­u­mented by The Maysles Broth­ers in Gimme Shel­ter (read Matthew Dessem’s excel­lent take on the film at The Cri­te­rion Con­trap­tion).

Demetri Martin in Taking WoodstockOne of the most famous traf­fic jams in history

Just as Tak­ing Wood­stock never quite takes off, Elliot never actu­ally makes it to the con­cert. The fact that we never see it, and barely even hear it, is part of the point. Many of the 400,000 atten­dees prob­a­bly never got any closer, either. And even those that did may have been too altered to recall much.

Ran­dom observations:

  • There are puz­zling hints that Lang’s assis­tant Tisha (Mamie Gum­mer, Meryl Streep’s daugh­ter) is sig­nif­i­cant, but her char­ac­ter is ulti­mately super­flu­ous. The role is not sig­nif­i­cant enough to match the notable casting.
  • Like con­tem­po­raries Michael Win­ter­bot­tom and Danny Boyle, Ang Lee seems deter­mined to never make the same film twice. Seen in that light, Tak­ing Wood­stock is a refresh­ing break in tone from his grim, thor­oughly nonerotic Lust, Cau­tion.
  • Fur­ther, it’s also worth not­ing that Eliot’s homo­sex­ual awak­en­ing is much more suc­cess­ful and ful­fill­ing than that of the tor­tured cow­boys in Broke­back Mountain.

Offi­cial movie site: www.takingwoodstockthemovie.com

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