(Limited concentration span? Skip the background and go straight to the review under picture – see below)
Any cinematic recreation of 1969’s Woodstock music festival is destined to divide its audience – especially the baby boomers who might be expected to make up the main target demographic.
For those boomers who hold the event dear – and often possessively close – as the spectacular generation-defining culmination of all that was good and groovy about the 60s (and their youth), anything less than a reverent portrayal will be pelted with charges of blaspheme.
The “straights”, the boomers who stood there disapproving, dumbfounded or dorkily unaware as the magic bus of the 60s passed by trailing incense and dope smoke, probably won’t be any more interested in Woodstock now than they were in 1969.
Gen Y and other post-boomer generations – well who knows? Some of them will have inherited their parents’ idealised vision of Woodstock, or the opposite; most will at least be aware of its iconic status, and will comprise part of this movie’s intended market. These guys, chronologically and emotionally distanced from the event, are likely to be more open-minded than the boomers in their reception of this work of Lee’s.
Then there are those like me, born too late to feel part of the Woodstock generation (I was in 2nd year high school in ’69), yet still sharing in the musical, political and psycho-chemical excitement of the era, and tapping into the spirit of Woodstock via the follow-up 1970 movie of the same name that became, in itself, one of the cultural landmarks of the period.
I never aspired to hippiedom. In fact, by the time I came of age, the hippie was already on the way to becoming a relic. However, some of the more extreme elements of counter-culture philosophy did fire my imagination (eg: the radical contents of a tattered copy of Jerry Rubin’s Do It!: A Yippie Manifesto possessed me for years, and The Doors, who plumbed a realm far darker than the smiley, saccharine, saggy-lidded world of flower-power, were my favourite band).
Somehow, during my metamorphosis to adulthood, I retrospectively associated my selective and romanticised version of 60s counterculture radicalism with Woodstock, which for me came to represent subversion, rebellion, a triumph of the new anti-materialistic values I embraced and have never really let go of, a towering monument to youth art and specifically to rock and roll (which was almost a religion to me), and perhaps most significantly, a compelling anti-war statement by the switched-on masses at a time when Vietnam was a festering sore in the West, and a moral outrage as far as I was concerned.
As the 70s progressed, I shrugged off my fond imaginings of what Woodstock was all about. It became painfully evident that the 60s dream was largely illusory. In Australia, Whitlam came to power and pulled Australian troops out of Vietnam. Thus, we lost our cause célèbre. Peers started getting married, chasing bucks and careers and “settling down” (faaark!). Almost overnight, it seemed, the open bag of dope on the kitchen table at parties disappeared; invitations were now issued to the chosen, who would retreat behind closed doors. Or you’d be offered a “foil” – for a price. And my beloved rock and roll was hijacked by big business, and developed a preciousness and self-indulgence that spawned guitar heroes, tedious 20 minute drum solos, and corporate whore stadium bands that left me cold.
Punk came as a jolting blow to the now flabby gut of rock and roll, and I’m proud to say I was in the vanguard of the movement in Perth (see The Geeks Story). By that time, my perception of Woodstock had more than soured. And as the awful extent of the sellout of 60s counterculture ideals and values by the very folk who so self-righteously and uncompromisingly espoused them a decade before became irrefutable, those famous “three days of music and peace” were reduced to a bitter equation for me: Woodstock = bullshit.
All of which is a long-winded, but I think necessary, excursion from the main purpose of this post. Why necessary? Because in the interests of fairness, I need to divulge the baggage I brought to this movie. As you’ll have noted, my view of Woodstock is full of contradictions and paradoxes, verging on schizoid. I understand the reverence with which some recall the event, yet I recoil from it. And I attended this screening of Taking Woodstock ready to sneer, yet hoping for something special. Yes, an uncomfortable – if not downright unacceptable – position for a reviewer to find himself in, I admit.
Skip the background – get to the bloody movie review!
All my pre-movie angst came to nothing (as angst usually does). See, Ang Lee’s Taking Woodstock isn’t really a film about Woodstock! Lee has neatly side-stepped all the potential controversy a movie recreation of the event would have brought down upon his head by framing his story as a behind-the-scenes exposé from the perspective of some small-town rural folk of New York State whose lives were abruptly and discordantly altered by the massive counterculture pilgrimage that ensued when one of their own agreed to host the Woodstock festival on the rolling slopes of his farm.
There is no concert footage, simulated or otherwise, and although the credits at the end included many songs from the era, very few are discernible during the movie. Puzzling.
The story draws on the autobiography of Elliot Tiber (played by Demetri Martin), Taking Woodstock: A True Story of a Riot, a Concert, and a Life.
Tiber is a frustrated interior designer, hog-tied by his family, who rely on him to keep their dilapidated motel afloat. He is enslaved to the will of his whining, mean and miserly immigrant Jewish mother. Overplayed to the point of grotesquerie by Imelda Staunton, the mother is intended to be a comic character, and some viewers laughed dutifully (no doubt the ones who were onside from the outset), but I found her utterly unlikeable and intensely irritating – so grating, in fact, that for me she single-handedly ruined the movie.
The cosmic cookie crumbles such that Tiber is instrumental in gaining a permit for the Woodstock concert organisers. Stoned on his first joint (courtesy of one of the flower-child early arrivals), he inadvertently gives the impression to the press that the concert is free, and detonates the explosive publicity that will bring half a million freaks through his town and the wrath of the conservative townsfolk down on his harried arse.
Speaking of which, he is gay. He comes out under the spell of the festival’s pervasive atmosphere of tolerance, freedom and self-expression. Indeed, the attitudes of even the most hardlined of the townsfolk soften as the flower-and-fringe freaks move through their town, spreading the Woodstock love vibe and apparently transforming lives as they go (a patronising – and unlikely – notion). Tiber’s father, for example, recognises that his son is shackled and pushes him to seek his own destiny away from the family. Even the wretched crone of a mother gets stoned on hash brownies, collapses into paroxysms of giggling and experiences a state approximating joy for probably the first time in her down-mouthed existence. Gag reflex activating as I write…
To give some credit where it’s due, the movie does conjure up a nice 60s carnivalesque atmosphere that one can imagine is as it was. Familiar images borrowed from the 1970 Woodstock movie enhance this sense of authenticity: eg – the motorcycle cop with the flower attached to his helmet, and the teenage girl phoning to tell mom she has met “some beautiful people” and won’t be coming home.
Tiber’s first acid trip is a highlight. In a van overlooking the hillside on which the throngs are camped, with the stage a distant electric white glow, he is nursed by a glassy-eyed hippie couple through his initial fears as colours start to run together and sounds warp. His LSD experience is accompanied by a brilliant choice of music – Love’s Red Telephone from the wondrous Forever Changes album. The song lyrics are telling: Sitting on a hillside, watching all the people die…I’ll feel much better on the other side.
This sense of impending decay is followed up in the concluding stages of the movie. The festival is over, the site now a forlorn wasteland of mud and rubbish. Looking out over this desolate morning-after scene, Tiber asks one of the concert organisers “What happens now?” He replies, “Now we chase money and sue each other.”
He could have been talking for his entire generation and the course they would pursue in the decades to follow. He adds, with a tone of positive expectation, that he’s already planning a new concert – this one bigger and better than Woodstock: The Rolling Stones in San Francisco. Of course, he’s referring to Altamont Speedway. If you don’t know what happened there, read about it here.
“A generation began in his backyard” proclaims the promo poster. Hardly. Woodstock was not the beginning – it was the beginning of the end. There is no doubt that this is Lee’s parting message, but this is the only insight he brings to Taking Woodstock…and it’s hardly original.
Apart from Tiber, the characters are not well fleshed out, and some don’t ring true – a transvestite security guard, for example, would have been more at home in 70s New York circa Lou Reed’s Walk On The Wild Side. A pretentious and untalented theatre troupe living in the Tiber family barn is a comic inclusion that fails dismally. And a psycho Nam veteran hallucinating his battle experiences is beyond stereotype – the guy’s a caricature!
Taking Woodstock masquerades as a movie about Woodstock, but basically it’s nothing more than a coming of age story, and a pretty ho-hum one at that. All in all, a letdown.
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