Taking or leaving “Woodstock”
Maybe you had to be there. Stripped of the music (only heard faintly as background noise) and more critically, the actual performances of great artists such as The Who, Crosby, Stills and Nash, Janis Joplin, and Jimi Hendrix, “Taking Woodstock” basically turns into a film of mass hippie nostalgia. The film works best when it shows the actual preparations as to how the 1969 concert came together and was staged on a dairy farm in the Catskills of New York.
It is based on the true story of Elliot Tiber (Demitri Martin) a young interior designer who is forced to move back with his parents and help run the El Monaco Hotel in Bethel. When the original sight chosen for the music festival falls through, Elliot, himself a very modestly experienced chamber concert organizer, invites the Woodstock promoters to meet Max Yasgur (Eugene Levy) the owner of a nearby farm who has plenty of space to accommodate the 5,000 expected attendees.
Yasgur agrees to host the “3 Days of Peace and Music” but once word spreads of the number and prestige of the artists involved, (Creedence Clearwater Revival was one of the first bands signed, but, famously, demanded not to be part of any filming) the number of concert goers explodes to over 500,000 making it a watershed event for rock and roll and the decade of the 60’s.
The film captures the muddy, crowded, but remarkably peaceful proceedings complete with the bohemian nudity, acid dropping, pot smoking and free-spirited frolicking associated with the era. Director Ang Lee (“Brokeback Mountain,” “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”) looks at the event with tenderness without romanticizing too much but it’s difficult to discern who would really enjoy this story sans the event’s raison d’arte-the concert itself.
It’s as if the film has been made by people who can’t quite grasp the meaning of it all. In contrast, for example, 2000’s landmark film “Almost Famous” perfectly captures the musical and cultural impulses of early 70’s rock because writer/director Cameron Crowe experienced the events first hand.
There are the occasional funny and poignant moments and when the film focuses on the logistics of the concert preparations or the townspeople’s anger when the masses start arriving, “Taking Woodstock” hints at a worthwhile story.
The most memorable performances are by two supporting characters-Liev Schreiber as a very unexpected undercover security officer, and Tony award winning actor Jonathan Groff who radiates coolness as promoter Michael Lang. Look for his star to rise quickly.
“Taking Woodstock” itself is a bit of a long, strange trip not devoid of earnest sentiment but missing some magical moments that could make sense of it all. Watching concert footage of the real Woodstock appears to still be the best way to “get back to the land” and “set your soul free.”
Rated R for graphic nudity, some sexual content, drug use and language