TAKING WOODSTOCK revisits the marathon music event of 1969 through the eyes of a local, Elliot Tiber (1935-2016), who claimed partial credit for getting the permit and location arrangements. Skillfully directed by Ang Lee, the consistently clever script by James Schamus is based on Tiber’s memoir “Taking Woodstock: A True Story of a Riot, a Concert and a Life”.
Rut-stuck, helping his parents run a beat-up tourist-dependent motel in the New York State hamlet of White Lake, Elliot Tiber seizes an opportunity to provide help and lodging to concert promoter Mike Lang, played as beatifically laid back by Jonathan Groff. Lang’s rock show will occur on the farm property of Tiber’s neighbor Max Yasgur (Eugene Levy), who is shrewd enough to strike a decent payday from Lang’s outfit and thumb his nose at the irate locals upset over a bunch of hippies descending on their bucolic backwater. As word spreads, the bunch becomes a horde, then a tidal wave. A financial game changer for dairy farmer Max, and for Elliot’s parents, amusingly portrayed by Imelda Staunton and Henry Goodman; more than that, the cascade of happily hedonistic freedom turns Elliot’s stifled, closeted life around. As many can testify, the right combination of great rock and roll, cool people, lucky timing and well-made LSD can do that.
“Like ants making thunder.”
Cinematographer Eric Gautier filmed in and around the small New York communities of New Lebanon, Hillsdale, Millerton and Schodack. Using no authentic footage from the event, director Ang Lee beautifully marshals a host of perfectly picked extras and bit players, backed by disarmingly effective visual effects to suggest an endless crowd (kudos for the ‘acid ripple’ biz). Applause to the production design, costumers, visual effects folk and makeup crew.
Martin, 34 in his first major feature gig, does well (he’d later excel as Dean, an unsung sleeper), Liev Schreiber has a fun gig as a cross-dressing security volunteer, and there’s a groovy van-power segment with Paul Dano and Kelli Garner, two sweet-natured counter-culturists who medicinally expand Elliot’s overview of the people-ocean he helped fill.
Rain fell on the real Woodstock, reality soaking in, and sadly, box-office response to this 2009 valentine was all wet, a worldwide gross of just $9,976,000 crushed by a $30,000,000 production cost. Reviews ranged from smiles (well deserved) to snarls (WTF?)—as one of the flower girls in the movie relates, with appropriate cosmic simplicity, “Everyone with their little perspective. Perspective shuts out the universe, it keeps the love out.” *
With Emile Hirsch, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Mamie Gummer, Dan Fogler, Skylar Astin and—blast-from-past—Richard Thomas (we knew ‘John-Boy’ tripped). 120 minutes.
* Naturally, some myopic reviewers (and the self-anointed purists who boor among us) had their chi in a snit, both because the film didn’t concentrate more on the event’s music (see, uh, the three hours of 1970’s Woodstock) and/or it didn’t solve every pressing p.c. issue of the 2000’s with its array of representative characters from 40 years back. This same sort of parade-pissing affliction saw benighted bumming over Across The Universe, to cite one Why-Are-You-So-Tweaked? example. It’s less an example of taste or acumen than perhaps a case of memory-agenda lock, owning popular history, especially from the 60s-70s and the music and vibe of the ‘daze’. Just call that dude you know who lives by that field near that river and get some shrooms, already…