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. 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. If the sorry evidence of today is any measure, then it probably wasn’t.
So what? Isn’t it a nice fantasy to believe that music and contemplation (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. I admit it: I got completely suckered in to Taking Woodstock. Taiwanese-American filmmaker Ang Lee’s 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, even for a movie that is a 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, it’s the mostly true story of how Tiber — transformed here into Elliot Teichberg (Demetri Martin) — accidentally 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 Catskills town where his parents (Imelda Staunton 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 of 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. Lee and screenwriter James Schamus made the deliberate decision to avoid that side of the event … but that still leaves plenty left to cover. How do you bring half a million 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 Devon to the all-man tranny (Liev Schreiber) hired by Elliot as security to Eugene Levy’s 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 part of a fantasy.