Just in time for the fortieth anniversary of the Woodstock festival comes a movie that outlines how a music and arts fair named for one small upstate New York town ended up in a completely different location. Taking Woodstock, from Brokeback Mountain director Ang Lee, is based on the much disputed memoir of Elliot Tiber, a young Catskills motel manager. In it he tells of how an article in the newspaper and a carton of the “best chocolate milk in New York” helped find the history-making festival a home.
When we first meet Elliot (Demetri Martin) he’s a closeted gay man closing his decorating business in Greenwich Village to return to his humble roots as the part-time manager of his parent’s seedy Catskills motel. He has big plans for the place—renaming it a resort is just the first step—but business has been bad and they are on the verge of defaulting on their mortgage. After reading an article about a music festival’s location woes he senses an opportunity to lease out some of his own land and maybe rent a few rooms. Turns out his land is too swampy but dairy farmer Max Yasgur (Eugene Levy) steps in and suddenly the festival has a home and Elliot’s run down motel becomes the headquarters of what would become the biggest concert of the 1960s.
In Taking Woodstock Ang Lee had the chance to make a large scale film about a pivotal cultural event, but for better and for worse, has instead focused on Elliot’s personal journey. The story has many possibilities—it could have explored the small town attitude toward the hippie kids who invaded the Catskills (“Meshugana, barefoot, hairy people” says Elliot’s mom) or the racism encountered by Elliot and his Jewish immigrant family or the logistics of building a concert arena in a farmer’s field or Elliot’s traditional family’s feelings about his homosexuality. Lee touches on all these subjects, but only lightly grazes them. In their place we get a mildly interesting coming-of-age story with some good laughs, some dubious history and a feel-good vibe.
The film’s central theme, that Woodstock’s peace and love aura had a transformative effect on everyone present that weekend, is quite sweet, if a little naïve. Lee piles it on thick, and perhaps errs on the side of sentimentality a bit too often to allow the film to taken as anything other than a look back through rose colored glasses at an event that makes boomers nostalgic.
Another sticking point is the music, or rather the lack thereof. We only ever see the Woodstock stage from a distance—the bands look and sound, as one high character says, “like ants making thunder”—and the rest of the soundtrack is a random (and uninspired) collection of boomer faves from the late Sixties.
Having said all that, Taking Woodstock is enjoyable enough, although a tad long at two hours (a long, trippy acid sequence could easily have been shortened or clipped altogether). Lee has meticulously recreated the era, effectively mimics the concert movie’s split screen and has drawn solid performances from his cast (it must be hard to pull off the script’s large amount of “far outs” and “groovys” with a straight face), but I wish the movie actually stood for something. The Sixties were all about standing up and being heard, but Taking Woodstock is content to speak in a whisper.