This is the way we should remember Woodstock — a sea of people, a river of mud, a mountain of garbage and a whole lotta love.
And that sound echoing from off in the acid-warped distance? It’s the music, man.
Ang Lee’s “Taking Woodstock” is a coming-of-age comedy that roams the backstage and the back-story and sees that epic concert through rose-colored glasses. It’s got every ’60s cause — from bra burning to draft-card burning, environmentalism to gay liberation — and every ’60s movie cliche: the ’Nam vet having flashbacks, stoned hippies, hippie-hating cops, parents learning the joys of hash brownies.
There’s nothing like cliches for a warm wallow in nostalgia.
The director of “Brokeback Mountain” adapted Elliot Tiber’s book recalling the event and shows us the concert experience through young Elliot’s eyes. Elliot (Demetri Martin) was a young, newly out gay artist just returned from the Stonewall Riot that launched gay liberation, struggling to save his parents’ dump of a motel. But the “El Monaco International Resort & Casino,” with its dirty rooms and tatty cabins, was in Bethel, N.Y. And when Woodstock concert promoters lost their planned venue just down the road, it was Elliot who thought to call them, who talked his neighbor Max Yasgur into renting out his dairy farm, all to make a little music and a little history.
Taking Woodstock is a movie of characters and context. It was the summer of Apollo 11. Bethel was a moribund village where Elliot ran a chamber of commerce with no real commerce. The culture was divided along a generation gap. That plays out in Elliot’s own family, where his comically mean and cheap mom (Imelda Staunton, a riot) and long-suffering dad (Henry Goodman) resist this “hippie invasion” he has brought down on them.
Eugene Levy plays Yasgur as a trusting, tolerant soul, but one who is cagier than he came off in Michael Wadleigh’s famed Woodstock documentary. There’s Vilma (Liev Schreiber, cool and hilarious in wig and high heels) the transvestite who runs security. Promoter Michael Lang (Jonathan Groff) is an idealized mellow fellow in the prettiest Jewfro in history, literally riding in on horseback to chill everybody out. And Dan Fogler of “Fanboys” heads an avante garde theater troupe that was there before there was a “Woodstock” and naked before any of the teeming masses who followed.
Even as Woodstock gets the mud and the mess it sugar-coats the drugs and the generational/cultural divide. Lee mixes film stocks and splits the screen, just like the famed documentary about the concert (a concert we never see in this film), and gives us a special-effects acid trip. He has so many players and so many interesting characters that it’s surprising he’s able to do a few of them justice. Even the standard-issue burned out veteran (Emile Hirsch) has a moment of grace.
That’s the message of the film, too. It was just a moment. But up there on Yasgur’s farm for one long weekend, it really was about peace and love ... and mud and overflowing toilets. Whatever the smelly, wet reality, the legend is what endures. Maybe that’s as it should be.