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

Buy any of these fine prod­ucts from Ama­zon and kick back a few pen­nies to The Dork Report:





Named after the ancient Per­sian city, Mar­jane Satrapi’s graph­ic nov­el Perse­po­lis is a mem­oir of her life in Europe and Iran after the Iran­ian rev­o­lu­tion. This ani­mat­ed fea­ture joins the grow­ing ranks of com­ic book adap­ta­tions that prove that comics are not only about super­heroes that dress up in ani­mal-themed cos­tumes to bat­tle crime. Hope­ful­ly it, along with oth­er good comics-to-film tri­umphs Ghost World and A His­to­ry of Vio­lence, will broad­en movie­go­ers’ aware­ness of the many alter­na­tive gen­res already explored in comics.

PersepolisThe spir­it of punk invades Iran

In a rare priv­i­lege per­haps only ever shared by Frank Miller in mak­ing Sin City with Robert Rodriguez, Satrapi served as co-direc­tor and writer of the film (with Vin­cent Paron­naud). She sings music to my ears in the DVD bonus fea­tures; to para­phrase, she states that it is a fool’s errand to make a lit­er­al, strict adap­ta­tion of any graph­ic nov­el to film. As comics writer Alan Moore once bril­liant­ly and suc­cinct­ly put it, comics are whol­ly unlike movies because, sim­ply, “movies move.” The recent trend in Hol­ly­wood is to per­form fan ser­vice (as it’s known) and make the most lit­er­al­ly faith­ful adap­ta­tions pos­si­ble. Sin City, 300, and the upcom­ing Watch­men all pro­cede from the flawed pre­sump­tion that the source mate­ri­als’ fan­base (the nerdy, genre-con­ven­tion-attend­ing straw­men in stu­dios’ equa­tions that they expect to be buy­ing the tick­ets and DVDs) want noth­ing less than per­fect tran­si­tions from page to screen. But such a thing is nev­er pos­si­ble, let alone desir­able.

Persepolispolit­i­cal­ly con­scious at a young age

That said, Perse­po­lis the film does share the strik­ing­ly stark look of Satrapi’s char­ac­ter­is­tic pen and ink illus­tra­tions. A most­ly black & white ani­mat­ed French mem­oir about a young Iran­ian woman could nev­er be mis­tak­en for block­buster mate­r­i­al, but it is fun­ny, illu­mi­nat­ing, and mov­ing.

Offi­cial movie site: www.sonypictures.com/classics/persepolis

Buy the graph­ic nov­el and DVD from Ama­zon and kick back a few pen­nies to The Dork Report.