“Taking Woodstock” (2009). Cast: Demetri Martin, Imelda Staunton, Henry Goodman, Emile Hirsch, Eugene Levy, Dan Fogler, Jonathan Groff, Mamie Gummer, Skylar Astin, Daniel Eric Gold, Adam Pally, Darren Pettie, Liev Schreiber, Paul Dano, Kelli Garner. Director: Ang Lee. Screenplay: James Schamus. Book: Elliot Tiber and Tom Monte.
Every so often a milestone event occurs that comes to distinguish an era. It may not be the most significant happening of its time, but it’s often the most symbolic, given its size, scope or impact. For those who came of age in the late ’60s, such an event took place at a music festival in a sleepy hamlet in the Catskills, a gathering whose name would define a generation and the radically new social values it embodied. That legendary event is now chronicled in the whimsical new nostalgic comedy, “Taking Woodstock.”
Based on the back story of the 1969 Woodstock Music Festival, the film focuses on how the event came together, thanks in part to the efforts of an unlikely young entrepreneur, Elliot Teichberg (Demetri Martin). Elliot secured the hosting rights for the town of White Lake, NY, when the nearby community of Wallkill passed up the chance to hold the three-day concert, partly out of logistical concerns and partly out of fears it would be overrun by unruly hippies. However, Elliot saw this opportunity as a means to help his community and to boost business at the rundown “resort” he ran with his eccentric, miserly parents (Imelda Staunton, Henry Goodman). Little did he know he was helping to birth the phenomenon that would characterize “the Woodstock generation.”
The film’s first half details how Elliot connected with the concert’s promoters (Jonathan Groff, Skylar Astin, Daniel Eric Gold, Adam Pally) and helped secure the venue for the festival at the dairy farm of neighbor Max Yasgur (Eugene Levy). Along the way, viewers are introduced to the many colorful characters who accompany Elliot on his improbable journey, including a Vietnam veteran living on the edge of reality (Emile Hirsch), a cross-dressing security guard (Liev Schreiber), a hunky contractor who ignites Elliot’s emerging gay sensibility (Darren Pettie) and a talent-starved acting troupe more interested in getting naked than in performing.
The picture’s second half examines the festival once in full swing. It doesn’t focus on the concert per se (see the excellent documentary “Woodstock” (1970) for that) but instead recounts Elliot’s firsthand Woodstock experience. Viewers also see how this event impacted the national culture, specifically, how it celebrated the values of those who brought it into being and how it helped change the hearts and minds of those who initially opposed it and what it stood for, an accomplishment that was perhaps the most significant legacy of the festival and the era of which it was a part.
It’s quite remarkable how something so seemingly unremarkable as a concert could have such tremendous influence. But Woodstock helped galvanize the mindset and worldview of a new generation, one that preached love, peace, individuality and social justice, values sometimes scarce in prior generations. And all it took was everyone who attended contributing a little of their own energy and consciousness to the creative mix. Such modest offerings, from ordinary, everyday folks, might not have amounted to much individually, but, collectively, they combined to produce a powerful, synergistic groundswell, the effect of which, as one concertgoer (Paul Dano) put it, was “like ants making thunder.” It was a massive co-creation, illustrating the law of attraction writ large. And what a marvel it was!
The event also proved that life could be lived in other than traditional ways. Such unconventional thinking was crucial for a generation seeking to reshape the planet and discover itself in the process. This is illustrated most clearly through Elliott, a young man coming into his own in ways he may have never thought possible – or ever even dreamed of.
“Taking Woodstock” is an enjoyable, entertaining film, though the picture’s first half is definitely stronger than the second, which tends to meander a bit at times. I also found the movie’s occasional split screen filming technique – an homage to the innovative cinematic style of the aforementioned documentary – somewhat annoying, primarily because it adds little to the narrative while making the action needlessly difficult to follow. Nevertheless, the fine performances and generally solid writing more than compensate for these shortcomings.
While Woodstock may not have single-handedly changed the world, it characterized a decade of effort with that goal in mind, promoting changes that worked their way into the culture that have persisted to this day. And even though the work of Woodstock might not be complete, it’s further along than it would have been if the event hadn’t happened, and this film reminds us of that.
Think about that the next time you feel like one of those ants.
A lifelong movie fan and longtime student of metaphysics, free-lance writer/editor Brent Marchant is the author of Get the Picture: Conscious Creation Goes to the Movies (Moment Point Press, www.momentpoint.com). His additional writing credits include contributions to beliefnet.com and to Divine Revolution and Reality Change magazines. Brent also maintains an ongoing blog about metaphysical cinema at www.getthepicturebrentmarchant.blogspot.com. He holds a B.A. in magazine journalism from Syracuse University and resides in Chicago. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.