Of all the arts, music is arguably the one that is best understood. Music evokes feelings, wherever it’s from or whatever language it’s written in. It is the universal language. People often connect particular songs or artists to a certain time or person in their lives (Def Leppard, for example, recalls that first awkward boy-girl dance in Standard Five, while any saxophone jazz reminds me of my first love). Music has power. It can change history.
And that’s exactly what happened in August, 1969. Forget Glastonbury. 375 000 people over three days of Robbie Williams live at Knebworth? Please. The Woodstock Music and Arts Festival is, according to Rolling Stone magazine, “the most famous event in rock history.” Around half a million people swamped the town of Bethel, New York, for the concert, with tens of thousands more never making it there due to state-wide traffic jams that resulted in the county declaring a state of emergency. For decades, it was the biggest live concert ever performed.
This is the backdrop of indie comedy, Taking Woodstock. Academy Award-winning director, Ang Lee, ditches the drama of Brokeback Mountain and Lust, Caution and tells the true, and often bizarre, story of Elliot Teichberg (Demetri Martin), who became one of the accidental organisers of the festival. After failing to make an impression as an interior designer in New York City, Elliot moves back in with his parents at their small-town, dingy motel, the El Monaco (a misnomer if there ever was one). Business is not good, and as the bank wants to foreclose, Teichberg spots a newspaper article about a local music festival being banned from the nearby town of Wallkill. He contacts the producer of a company called Woodstock Ventures (the concert was named after the company not the actual town), to offer his parents’ property and a neighbour’s farm to host the festival.
The good townsfolk, however, are not happy when thousands stream there ahead of the concert. The dope-loving, fornicating hippies will be “stealing by day and raping cattle by night,” according to one resident. But, while there was plenty of sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll, the festival was later lauded for taking place without incidents of violence, and for creating a sense of peace and community during a time when there was great antagonism over the Vietnam War.
The film takes a fun and offbeat look at how Woodstock came to be such a landslide event. Unfortunately, Lee almost completely ignores the music. Granted, Michael Wadley’s award-winning 1970 documentary, Woodstock, examined the festival’s musical relevance in great detail, and perhaps Lee didn’t want to tamper with perfection. Taking Woodstock has a fantastic soundtrack with tracks by artists who performed at the festival, such as The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, and Janis Joplin. It’s just a shame the director couldn’t reflect this in the film. While Lee’s movie is about the experience of the festival, not the artists, he could easily have built the film up to a climax ending with one a song or two by one of the musical icons, such as Janis Joplin or The Who.
Still, Taking Woodstock offers plenty of laughs and provides more than average entertainment. Demetri Martin’s performance as Elliot is a little bland, especially considering he’s struggling with issues around his sexuality amid all the hippie-preaching of free love. However, watch out for ‘groovy’ performances by Liev Schreiber, as the cross-dressing ex-marine, Vilma, and Emile Hirsch as a soldier recently returned home from Vietnam.
Director: Ang Lee
Cast: Demetri Martin, Emile Hirsch, Henry Goodman, Liev Schreiber
Rating: 3½ out of 5
In a nutshell, the film will make you want make love, not war.