Taking Woodstock indulges that nice fantasy but not in a totally unrealistic way. It’s nice fantasy but also the flipside of nice fantasy: Someone has got to open their arms to the nice fantasy, and someone has got to clean up after it, too. Meet those nice people.
I will readily admit that I got completely suckered in to Taking Woodstock, a sort of semi-fictionalized comedy-drama about how that famous concert/cultural moment came to be, from a behind-the-scenes, “you never knew it was like this” perspective. Taiwanese-American filmmaker Ang Lee’s (Brokeback Mountain) 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 OK.
Funny thing is, for a movie that might be all about the 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—turned here into Elliot Teichberg (Demetri Martin)—accidentally/ deliberately 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 upstate 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 has 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. I mean, there’s really 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 10,000 … no, 50,000 … no, 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 most people 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 Devon (Dan Folger) to the all-man tranny (Liev Schreiber) hired by Elliot as security for the motel to conservative Max Yasgur (Eugene Levy), whose dairy farm plays host to the actual concert and 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 a fantasy.
Much of the final third of the film is given over to scenes that recent movies have trained us to see as apocalyptic: roads so jam-packed with traffic that no one can move; mobs sleeping rough in overcrowded motel rooms or off the side of the road; people vying for phone lines or fresh water. But it’s not the end of the world; it’s just the biggest party ever. And it’s really nice to be reminded of a time when people thought the biggest party ever might solve all our problems—even if we now know that it wouldn’t.
Demetri Martin, Liev Schreiber, Eugene Levy