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.
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.
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 debacle 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).
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.
- 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.