A review of the movie by Ang Lee
True believers still call Woodstock the capstone of an era devoted to human advancement. Cynics say it was a fitting, ridiculous end to an era of naivete. Then there are those who say it was just a hell of a party.
– Elliot Tiber, from his book, Taking Woodstock
Forty years ago a bunch of hippies got together for a weekend of Peace and Love and wound up changing history. OK, so it was a rather large bunch (half a million) who made it to the festival in upstate NY and untold more who wanted to and/or tried to attend but could not get there because the traffic was so congested they closed the New York State Thruway. Ang Lee’s new movie, Taking Woodstock purports to tell the behind-the-scenes story of how the festival came to being and how it came perilously close to never happening at all.
The film is based on the autobiographical book of the same title by Elliot Tiber (played in the movie by Demetri Martin) a youthful artist/interior designer from NYC who is trying to save his parents’ dilapidated Catskill motel in White Lake, NY from almost certain financial ruin. Elliot hears of the last minute cancellation of the Woodstock Festival venue in Wallkill due to rabid community opposition and immediately recognizing the potential opportunity, contacts the producers (including John Groff as Michael Lang) to interest them in holding the Festival in White Lake. When his parents’ land is determined unsuitable he hooks them up with Max Yasgur (Eugene Levy), whose dairy farm down the road became the actual site for the Festival.
I say “purports” to tell the story, because in fact, that version of the events is disputed by Michael Lang and the Yasgur family who say that Tiber was not actually involved in recommending the Yasgur farm. Whether it is true or an historical fiction plot contrivance is of little consequence, however. The drama of the last minute planning and buildup to Woodstock provides a rich canvas to reflect on the explosive cultural and political nexus that gained worldwide attention and led to a weekend that left an indelible mark on history. While none of the actual concert is incorporated into Taking Woodstock (some of the performances are heard in the distance), we certainly get a taste of what it was like through the shoulder-to-shoulder people jam on the road leading to Yasgur’s farm; the rain and mud and resulting delays; the antiwar and other assorted political activists present; and the Hog Farm serving free meals.
But as the multidimensional story unfolds it revolves mostly around Tiber, his relationships, aspirations, self-discovery, and coming of age. Tiber is the devoted and loving son of Jewish parents (played by Imelda Staunton and Henry Goodman) who escaped the anti-Semitic pogroms of Eastern Europe and are struggling to keep their Catskill Mountain “El Monaco Resort” afloat – its exotic name and small swimming pool apparently elevating its stature from ramshackle roadside motel. Despite its condition, El Monaco was ideally located and was transformed practically overnight into the Festival’s unofficial base camp.
We see the Festival through Tiber’s youthful naiveté and get a taste of its impact through his observations and reactions. He’s given the role of community liaison and his press conference shortly after smoking pot, supposedly for the first time, leaves the media scratching their heads. He’s so busy wrapped up in the drama of the event and observing from the outside that he needs to be convinced to actually go and experience it firsthand. So Elliot heads for Yasgur’s farm on the back of a NYS Trooper’s motorcycle – the Trooper like everyone else is transported by the enormity of the event and is now wearing a flower in his helmet. When Elliot finally makes it to the festival grounds he manages to hook up with a couple who invite him into their VW microbus to partake in his first psychedelic experience. Ang Lee does a convincing job in bringing us along on Elliot’s trip, enhancing the feeling that we are observing Woodstock through Elliot’s eyes. The extent to which the times were a changing back in 1969 is evident through Elliot’s gradual emergence from the closet and the introduction of Vilma (Liev Shreiber), the cross-dressing ex-marine hired on for security at El Monaco. To put this in historical context, remember that the story begins just one month after the birth of the Gay Rights Movement in the U.S. as marked by the Stonewall Riots.
Just as Woodstock was a turning point for American culture and politics so too was it a marker in the lives of many of the half million attendees. Though Elliott Tiber had a ring side seat and in his own way, played a role in making the Festival a reality, he was no exception.