Saturday, August 29, 2009

Taking Woodstock: 40 Years Later

It's been 40 years since the Woodstock Music & Arts Fair in the summer of '69, an event ingrained so deeply in our culture's subconscious that sometimes it's easy to forget how much of a miracle it really was. An event like Woodstock taking place today is almost unfathomable, but in '69, despite the war and madness of the time, it seemed anything was possible, and an unlikely series of events lead to the defining moment of a generation, proving to the world for a few short days that peace and love were still possible in a world gone crazy.
It is fitting that Ang Lee's new film Taking Woodstock is being released now as we pause to look back at those "3 days of peace & music." It tells the story of how the greatest music festival of all time came to be and shows the impact it had on the local families, their community and the world. It was called "Woodstock" because it was supposed to take place in Woodstock, NY as a much smaller event. As the project grew the location was changed to the town of Wallkill, NY, but when the local government of Wallkill banned the festival the promoters began to look for yet another location. Elliot Teichberg, the central character of the film, saw a newspaper article about the festival being banned in Wallkill, and, having already acquired a permit for an outdoor music festival, contacted Woodstock Ventures and offered to host the event in Bethel, NY.
Having been originally designed as a for-profit investment, Elliot's family motel is granted exclusive rights to distribute passes to the event, and a few people begin to straggle in looking to score the "magic tickets" while construction crews begin to build the stage and prepare for the concert. But soon the town is overwhelmed by a flood of hippies after word accidentally gets out that it was a free concert featuring Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, The Who, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and many others. Having little time to prepare, the organizers cut the fence and acknowledged they would take a huge financial hit as they had no way to sell or collect tickets for the mass of humanity that was arriving in greater numbers by the day. The result, while unlikely, was magical.

In the end over 500,000 people would show up, causing traffic jams over 100 miles long. The music, while amazing in its own right, almost become secondary to the true meaning of what transpired there. People came together in celebration of peace and formed a massive makeshift community of love. They survived in the mud on barely any food, and no one cared or complained. Some set up tents to help people on bad acid trips and others gave out food for free. While some people in the town were looking to cash in, the people who came didn't care about money, they only cared about the experience and the community. They wanted to make a statement to the world, and merely by their peaceful presence, they did.

Taking Woodstock picked up on this, and that's really what the film is about. The concert itself is never shown and exists only as the backdrop for the story of the Teichberg family and their property that became a temporary home for many of the people there for the festival. Elliot, played by Demetri Martin, is the person through which the audience sees the Woodstock experience. He runs around, trying to help where he can, forced into situations over his head, and deals not only with the hippie invasion but also with his own parents, played brilliantly by Imelda Staunton and Henry Goodman, both of whom deserve Oscar nominations for their roles. They are elderly immigrants and don't fully understand what is going on around them, and they rely on their son to hold everything together.

Emile Hirsch and Liev Schreiber also turn in outstanding supporting performances. Hirsch is a young Vet back from Vietnam, struggling to readjust to life without war and Schreiber plays a former Marine turned transvestite who provides "security" for the Teichberg family. Taking Woodstock is a very brave film, never shying away from showing things exactly as they were, full frontal nudity, sex in the bushes, and acid trips in vans included. When Director Ang Lee used split-screen sequences in his film Hulk (2003), based on the comic book series, it came off as cheesy, but here the technique comes off as homage to the documentary Woodstock (1970), and it effectively demonstrates the massive scale of the event depicted. The film manages to be more than simply a feature film version of the famous documentary, which may disappoint some, but ultimately it was a wise choice to focus on the back story rather than the musical performances.

The most striking thing that the film illuminates, indirectly, is that something like this would be impossible to achieve today. Promoters and organizers would plan it better, make sure to charge a ton of money up front, and there wouldn't be a groundswell of cultural support. The youth today is fragmented, isolated by the internet and on-demand television, and there are no overriding, unifying ideologies that drive movements in the same way there was in '69. Even just a few months after Woodstock they tried to replicate the magic by holding a free concert in California called Altamont which was a complete disaster, as was Woodstock '99. It just shows that you can't force magic to happen, it has to be a natural outcome from the right set of circumstances.

Taking Woodstock (2009) 9/10

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