September 8, 2009
Whenever a baby boomer waxes lyrical about how great the 1960s were, and in particular, how great the Woodstock Festival was, I tend to switch off. But Ang Lee's new film about the events leading up to the famous festival, Taking Woodstock, actually makes me wish I'd been around in 1969.
The festival, which attracted some 500,000 concert goers to hear al fresco performances by the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Ravi Shankar, Joan Baez, Janis Joplin and Jefferson Airplane, took place on a 600-acre dairy farm near the hamlet of White Lake in the town of Bethel, New York, from August 15 to August 18, 1969.
What's great about this understated film is that it completely ignores the obvious. We never get to see and hear the performers do their thing -- Lee uses neither documentary footage nor fictional reconstructions with actors pretending to be 1960s rock stars. The closest we come is a long-distance shot of the stage viewed from the outermost edges of the farm. The stage looks like a tiny white speck of light in a field of swarming black insects.
Instead of watching rock stars and groupies interact, what we get get is a frank, sweet and utterly unromanticized view of what it took to put on one of the most legendary rock events in western cultural history.
Lee tells the story through the eyes of Elliot Tiber (played by a sweetly gauche Demetri Martin) the nebbishe twenty-something son of a couple of down-on-their-luck motel owners from the old world. As the head of the local chamber of commerce, Tiber held the only musical festival permit in Bethel, New York, thus enabling the festival to occur.
Over the course of the film, we see the characters deal with the most prosaic of issues. Discussions about permits and portaloos are hardly the stuff of Hollywood reconstructions of seminal historical events. Yet James Schamus' tongue-in-cheek screenplay and engaging performances by the cast, which includes Imelda Staunton as Elliot's hard-nosed mother and Liev Schreiber as a transsexual security guard, make the everyday details dance before our eyes like fireflies around stadium floodlights.
As a result, Woodstock ends up coming to life in a completely vivid and human way.