A man working at his parents' motel in the Catskills inadvertently sets in motion the generation-defining concert in the summer of 1969.
It is 1969. And that’s important. Man is landing on the moon but in upstate New York the El Monico, an ‘International Casino and Bar Mitzvah Center’—in reality a crumbling toilet—is in danger. Its snapping turtle of a proprietor, Sonia, stomps, fumes, insults, and doesn’t change the bedding unless there’s visible marks. To the half-hearted rescue comes her son, Elliot, a struggling interior designer from Greenwich Village.
Elliot is a little man with little plans. In the death grip of his mother, he spends all of his own money and time saving his parents’ business, at the expense of his own life, identity, and happiness. One of his ideas for business rejuvenation in their little Catskills backwater is an arts festival; last year, his music festival—where he played records out on the lawn—was highlight of the summer calendar. He has also given refuge to an avant-garde theatre troupe in the disused barn who present their version of Chekhov’s ‘Three Sisters’ to the locals wearing animal masks before ripping off their costumes and, nude, shouting ‘Fascist pornographers!’ at the audience. Elliot, relatively, seems a visionary; some of the other suggestions by the town council for luring in the tourists is a Fish Toss, a monorail linking their town to Manhattan, and a Catskills version of the running of the bulls (where the bulls chase orthodox Jews through the streets).
But it’s 1969. There’s something exciting in the air. Luckily for Elliot, the nearby townsfolk of Wallkill will hold no truck with the longhairs and their animal rutting and their sin music. So Elliot contacts Woodstock Enterprises, who fly in by helicopter and, after a meeting with Elliot’s neighbour, the dairy farmer Max Yasgur, history is set in motion.
It’s not a new story: simple hardworking folk in jeopardy, young son has to choose between saving the family business or finding his own way…. I think the first talkie actually had that plot. Frank Capra certainly got mileage out of it. And along with the fact that ‘Taking Woodstock’ is based on well-documented recent history (so well documented that it won an Oscar in 1971), the pressure is off: all the tension is whisked away by knowledge of an inevitable past and we are left, like in a Capra movie, with the certainty that everything’s going to be okay. We can just sit back and enjoy the characters fumbling toward a happy ending.
An Ang Lee movie usually feels, well, more important. ‘Taking Woodstock’ is a light thing, very enjoyable, in the just-loosen-the-fuck-up-for–a-change genre, like, say, ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’, or ‘Local Hero’, and of course the prime exemplar of the genre, ‘Babette’s Feast’, where the lemon-faced Lutheran woman just need to tuck in and crack a smile. It’s wish fulfilment fantasy (no less so because it’s based on a true story), because we’d all like to break free. It’s a fairy tale of hope and acceptance, like when a cop rides up on his motorbike, in the sludging river of stoned hippies, and offers Elliot a ride to the concert. ‘I was looking forward to coming over here and clubbing a bunch of hippies over the head,’ he says and shrugs, ‘Now, I don’t know, man. Must be the fumes.’ He has a flower in his helmet.
Wisely, Lee keeps the action centered not on the Three Days of Peace and Music (the music is heard on the breeze coming over the lake, as naked hippies bathe in the shallow water, and the stage is kept in the distance, only glimpsed once through an LSD hallucination like the distant center of a galaxy) because it isn’t about that. ‘Woodstock’, the documentary, is about that. ‘Taking Woodstock’ is about coming of age, it’s about finding the courage and confidence to be yourself. Elliot doesn’t quite make the actual festival. On his first attempt he meets a couple sitting in the back of a psychedelic VW bus—‘We’re from everywhere, you’re from everywhere, eight miles high!’—and drops acid in, I believe, one of the most accurate screen representation of an acid trip ever filmed: it’s not zoom lens abuse, as is so often the cinematic cliché, but hypersensitive vision leading to brief hiccups of folding time (or so I surmise). Elliot emerges from the van in a Mayan pullover, having shed his Montgomery Ward slacks and button-up shirt, in an image of rebirth.
Ang Lee is a perspicacious and meticulous observer of the building blocks of the American psyche (‘The Ice Storm’ was a slice of 1970s so well observed it was like looking at a roll of 110 film that I shot with my first camera). He is no less so here, as he brilliantly incorporates Scorsese’s editing style on ‘Woodstock’ (the documentary), with its split screens and wipes, as well as recreating iconic peripheral events like the grainy press conference and sliding through mud on one’s belly. Even on the soundtrack, in the opening shots, we hear a folksy guitar gradually give way to electric, an aural microcosm of the 60s in general.
But what stands out is the excellence of the performances. Demetri Martin as Elliot is ideal as the malleable boy-man, who finds the courage to embrace his gay identity, and even manages a smooch with a builder, though it isn’t about that: it’s about finding the strength to value yourself. Imelda Staunton as Sonia is a tour de force, a woman tragically marked by a life of privation, too hardened by misery to be able to trust, but gradually learns to at least respect Elliot enough to let him go. Staunton creates a character of comic brilliance (not every actor could deliver a line like ‘Until we need you, then you turn on the gas!’ in a thick Yiddish accent and get belly laughs) and, without betraying that performance, moves us to gasps of pity and revulsion as the depth of her scars is revealed. Liev Schreiber also turns in an unexpected and delicious turn as a lascivious yet demure Amazonian drag queen, Betty Von Vilma, who is hired to provide security for the El Monico, and who’s packing heat in more ways than one.
This was by far Lee’s lightest and happiest film, with little danger lurking in the corners. It was two hours of a summer’s first kiss, a warm sense of hope at the beginning of new world (a new world for Elliot, certainly, as he learned the value of his individuality, and new world for America as the cultural tidal wave of the 60s reached its zenith). It may not feel as weighty as his best work, but it will invoke nostalgia for a time some of us weren’t even around for.