Like many people who weren't even alive in 1969, I have an irresistible, faux nostalgia for movies that capture the vibe of that time. So while Ang Lee's Taking Woodstock abounds with '60s cliches, I couldn't help but enjoy it.
As telegraphed in the title, Taking Woodstock offers an alternate perspective on the legendary New York music festival. The story swirls around Elliot Teichberg (Demetri Martin) as he takes stock of his life, struggling to help his parents save their rundown Catskills motel while longing for the freedom he feels as a young gay man living in NYC. So he takes Woodstock out of its limbo after the event has been rejected by two other upstate towns. Though the movie is based on a true story, it's almost cartoonish at times, so hear more of what I thought.Martin is surprisingly authentic and sweet as Elliot, who offers his parents' motel as Woodstock HQ and sees his relationship with them transformed as a result. The town, too, has its conventions challenged when family friend Max Yasgur (Eugene Levy) agrees to host the hippie invasion on his dairy farm.
The first part of the film plods with exposition and brims with cliches: Billy (Emile Hirsch) manages to embody every Vietnam vet stereotype in one overdone performance, while the townspeople feel like caricatures. But about halfway through, Liev Schreiber shows up playing a transvestite named Vilma, and at once everything feels at once more fun and more significant. As the concert approaches, split-screen shots capture the frenetic feeling of a town turned on its head, nodding to Robert Altman's Nashville.
But Taking Woodstock isn't about the performances at the legendarily muddy show; the 1970 documentary captures all that quite well. Rather, it's a closeup look at how the remarkably peaceable gathering of half a million people comes together and transforms ordinary folks like Elliot and his father, refreshingly real played by Henry Goodman. Elliot doesn't get to see the Who, and neither do we, but that's not the point. When the concert arrives, everything is invigorated; if only the rest of the movie felt as authentic.
Photos courtesy of Focus Features