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Friday, Jan. 7, 2011
A totally far-out take on music history, man
History has a sly way of happening when you least expect it. For example: A one-time dealer and savvy concert promoter teams up with a hip record-company exec to hold a music and arts festival in a rural setting, showcasing a few of the year's better bands. The promoters expect attendance of around 200,000, but the gates come down and they wind up with over 400,000 souls assembled on Max Yasgur's farm in August 1969. Despite the logistical chaos and rain, a spirit of community prevails, Jimi Hendrix plays the guitar solo of a lifetime, minds are blown, and the Woodstock festival enters the history books.
History also has a tendency to ossify into a few sharply etched moments, and in Woodstock's case, most of them were cemented by Michael Wadleigh's three-hour 1970 documentary film of the same name. ("Gimme an "F"!, Hendrix's dive-bombing version of the national anthem, naked hippies in the mud, and that endless sea of furry freaks.) Woodstock became the Defining Event of a Generation (TM), so much so that even people who weren't there are quick to say they were. Everyone wants to be a part of history: Nobody wants to be the guy who stayed home with the kids that weekend.
That's a concern that gnaws away at Ang Lee's "Taking Woodstock," a film based on the memoir of Elliot Tiber. In '69, Tiber, a nice Jewish boy, was an aspiring interior decorator in Manhattan during the week, and on the weekends helped his parents run their rather decrepit motel in the Catskills. Tiber had obtained a permit to hold a small backyard-size arts fair in his hometown when he read that the upcoming Woodstock festival had been kicked out of nearby Walkill. He immediately contacted festival organizer Michael Lang, offered him the permit, and introduced him to Yasgur, on whose farm the festival would indeed be held. Lang and the entire Woodstock staff moved into Tiber's motel, which became the base of operations for the festival and the scene of all sorts of funky chaos and good vibes over the course of the summer.
Or so Tiber says. Lang, for his part, remembers it quite differently, as do many other participants, and apparently no one but Tiber recalls his own significance. Of course, most involved were partaking of massive amounts of herb, so who knows? But Tiber's account, as portrayed in Lee's film, has now been cited as "fact" by scores of reviews and articles. Perhaps that was Lee's point, to demonstrate that what we call history is often just a matter of who told the best story.
I'm not sure I buy that, but either way, "Taking Woodstock" is a fun look at getting caught up in the tide of history, and an ode to the starry-eyed idealism and personal-liberation politics of the era. By focusing in on one very square family — closeted homosexual Elliot and his fatalistic Nazi-Europe-survivor parents — Lee's film seeks to communicate how the "let it all hang out" spirit of the times was infectious. It's mostly played for farce, and it's amazing how many Fudds out there still mistake comic cliche for offensive stereotyping, whether it's hippies or Jewish parents. (See most other reviews of this film.) Lee does cut to some serious undertones, though, such as how the town's buzz-cut Nixon-voting types ostracized Elliot and Max for bringing the hippie horde to their town.
Elliot is played by deadpan comedian Demetri Martin, his penny-pinching immigrant mother by Imelda Staunton and his long-suffering dad by Henry Goodman, who steps out of the shadows to steal the film toward the end. Jonathan Groff certainly looks like Lang, while his hard-nosed blend of capitalism and Aquarian slogans sure feels right. Eugene Levy seems a natural fit for Yasgur, while Liev Schreiber shows up as an ex-marine tranny who provides security for the motel. Only Emile Hirsch is wasted in a poorly-written role as the crazy 'Nam vet who thinks he's still back in the bush fighting Charlie. The film captures the look of the era well, and the scenes of the 25-km-long traffic jam that extended out from the festival — and which became a kind of party in and of itself — are particularly convincing.
"Taking Woodstock" manages to avoid most of the cliches of Woodstock by remaining on the periphery of the festival: The closest we ever get to the stage is the far side of that sea of people, where Elliot is offered some psychedelics and makes it no further. It almost becomes a joke, in that we never get to hear or see the music for which the festival is rightly famous. But the point here is that it wasn't the music, or even the festival itself, but the confluence of energies that flew into it like a vortex that made Woodstock a life-changing event for so many. And in that regard, I suspect Lee is entirely correct.