It is often called the ultimate expression of the Summer of Love, a gathering of nearly half a million like minded individuals, all with the single goal of sharing three days of peace and music. It’s also quoted as the yin to the much darker and depressing yang of The Rolling Stones free concert at Altamonte, a mere four month later. Somewhere in between the myth and the memory, the legend and the legitimate issues surrounding its production, Woodstock stands as a symbol, one ripe for constant reevaluation and reconsideration.
So when it was announced that Ang Lee, one of the best interpreters of American cultural nostalgia (his Ice Storm remains a definitive ‘70s statement), was tackling Eliot Tiber and Tom Monte’s book about the backstage dramatics that came with the “happening” on Yasgur’s Farm in 1969, it seemed like a perfect fit. Often, it takes an outside perspective to shed new light on something so ingrained in our own historic consciousness. Unfortunately, Taking Woodstock is a trial, not a revelation. It attempts too many things, avoiding the much bigger picture to get much of that August’s minutia down pat.
When we first meet Eliot Tiber (a decent Demetri Martin), he is trying to hold on to his parents Catskill’s “resort”. In truth, it’s nothing more than a failing motel with a bunch of hippies/actors living in the barn. As a semi-successful New York interior designer, Eliot has sunk all his income into the business. Instead of gratitude, however, his father (Henry Goodman) ignores him and his mother (Imelda Staunton) smothers him. Hoping to bring some necessary tourism to the area, Eliot prepares for his annual classical music symposium. But when he hears that a rumored rock concert has been kicked out of its local location, he volunteers his town. Soon, the small community of White Lake is overrun with businessmen, promoters, and hippies. You see, Max Yasgur has graciously decided to donate his property to the cause, and now the on-again, off-again Woodstock music festival is back on!
If there is a single moment that is indicative of the few things that are right, and all that is wrong, with Taking Woodstock, it arrives toward the end of the second act. Eliot, desperate to see the concert, heads over to Yasgur’s farm to check it out. Along the way, he is stopped by a dreamy young couple (Paul Dano and Kelli Garner) who offer him a tab of acid. Within minutes, our hero is locked in a day-glo hallucination, the vibrant colors inside the hippies’ van melding and mixing into a glorious multi-tinted goo. Later, Eliot steps outside and sees the entire Woodstock nation, from small stage to massive throng, undulating like an ocean, ebbing and flowing over the image like a tide that’s about to turn.
It’s a wonderfully metaphoric moment, as strong a symbol of the event’s significance to the ‘60s as any since Hunter S. Thompson’s similarly styled “wave” monologue from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Sadly, it’s one of the rarities in a movie that would rather concentrate on quirk and ancillary individuals than anything of real impact or import. Granted, the story is set exclusively backstage, Tiber hoping to show how a little inspiration (and a great deal of communal faith) forged one of the major benchmarks of the counterculture. But without the concert itself, without some idea of what was going on a few miles away, Taking Woodstock misses out.
Lee makes the mistake of believing that everyone is well versed in both the actual three day showcase and the sensational documentary that resulted from it. He constantly riffs on both, reminding us of the post-modern mania of the time through split screen and other cinematic tricks. Yet within that assumption lays the problem. Woodstock is now 40 years old, its attendees moving beyond middle age into the twilight of their years. Several generations removed, it’s more of a talking point than a memory. You’ve got to give the fledgling 18 to 25 year old demo something to groove on, less they find your efforts a confusing trip down one person’s singular and insular memory lane. And since Tiber is not that compelling a figure, it’s up to the circumstances to carry the day. Unfortunately, they can’t.
That doesn’t mean that Taking Woodstock is a complete loss. On the contrary, there are times when you sense the subject matter trying to surpass its cinematic presentation for clarity and consideration. When Eliot is confronted by the real figures behind the show, names and faces we’ve come to recognize, we instantly click with the sequences. Similarly, when our hero takes the long walk to Yasgur’s to see the fruits of his scattered labors, there are iconic moments (the peace-sign waving nuns, cops with flowers in their guns) reminding us of our past memories of the movement. But then Lee spends way too much time on supporting situations, like Eliot’s lame home life, his latent homosexuality, and a bizarre turn by Liev Schrieber as a cross dressing ex-Marine who becomes Tiber’s bodyguard and confident. While trying to signify something, these outside issues instill nothing but nonchalance.
Even the added content on the new Blu-ray disc is underwhelming. Lee is on hand (along with prime suspect and scriptwriter James Schamus) to discuss his intentions, and it all sounds so noble and earnest. Sadly, much of that sentiment is missing from the movie. Similarly, the deleted scenes (including a few exclusive to the updated format) do little to remedy the superfluous nature of the narrative. It’s as if, by focusing exclusively on what happened miles away from the actual show, Taking Woodstock hopes to find some hidden message. Instead, it only uncovers what we’d expect from such a limited purview - minor interest and some otherwise unimportant information. Whatever his part in bringing Woodstock to White Lake (and there has been much contention about just how involved he was), Eliot Tiber’s story is a novelty, but nothing revelatory. Oddly enough, the movie made of his ‘adventures’ is even more nondescript.