Written by: James Schamus, Directed by: Ang Lee
Bob Dylan…The Rolling Stones…these are the mythic figures in the world of Taking Woodstock; their auras shape the movements of the characters. Yet, strangely enough, in this world, we never see the faces of any Woodstock act, let alone Dylan (who didn’t perform at the actual event). As much as I enjoy cameo depictions of historical figures (such as the Presidents in Lee Daniels’ The Butler), taking Woodstock’s non-inclusion of musicians is an important artistic choice.
Rod Stewart, a last minute-no-show for Woodstock later said “seen one outdoor festival, you’ve seen them all.” If Taking Woodstock were about the actual musical icons of hippyism, it likely would have had to find magic where there was none; magic in performers playing songs for the umpteenth time that in themselves may not have contained very much counter-cultural wisdom. Instead, Schamus and Lee have created a film that captures what really made Woodstock a historically important event: its organizers and audience.
The film’s story is of the underdog ilk. On of its underdogs is Elliot Teichberg (stand-up comedian Demetri Martin), the young president of his (miniscule and folksy) town chamber of commerce, who attempts to save his family’s motel business by bringing Woodstock to rural Whitelake, New York. The underdog motif goes beyond Elliot, however. Elliot’s whole generation are underdogs, who gather to collectively form what will be known as Woodstock, despite the anger of Whitelake’s residents.
Watching Taking Woodstock in the age of Trump, sheds fresh light on some of the film’s features. The Teichbergs are a Jewish, and when Whitelakians become unhappy with the looming prospect of hippies destroying their town ,some of them express this by turning to anti-semitism. This is mirrored in how the rise of open bigotry in Trumpian America has been accompanied by a rise in anti-youth language (the bashing of “special snowflakes”).
But could there be a film like Taking Woodstock about this generation? What are millenials? Millenials may be defined by their critics who see them as phone-addicted, entitled, whiny avocado connoisseurs, but do millennials have an internal sense of identity? A common cause? Perhaps not, but the hippy generation(at least in our historical imagining) certainly did. Taking Woodstock’s saviours are thus not Dylan and The Stones, but the young people who idolized them; young people who champion peace and love, and stand strong in the face of opposition from older generations.
Taking Woodstock’s approach of telling the story of a generation comes at a cost. The film has a good ensemble of characters including an alienated, hippy-haired veteran, a transwoman security guard (portrayed not unproblematically, but still positively), and Elliot’s eccentric parents (Henry Goodman and Imelda Staunton). None of these characters are developed or used enough due to the film’s lack of a story line beyond the festival’s happening. This underdevelopment is perhaps most problematic in the case of Elliot’s mother, a very-stereotypical Jewish matriarch.
Elliot’s character also remains shrouded in mystery, due to his character’s toned-down personality. The real Elliot Tiber (born Teichberg) was gay and attended the Stonewall riots. Taking Woodstock portrays Elliot as a diplomatic figure who can mediate between generations. Elliot’s preference for the ways of his generation, over the conservatism of older Whitelakeians is always depicted as awkward and subtle. Therefore when he kisses a man at a Woodstock party, it comes across more as him participating in an awkward dare than a sincere, liberating, and euphoric expression of his sexuality.
Elliot’s toned-down personality is nonetheless textually and politically significant. Despite his articulateness and relatively-straight-laced behaviour, even he is not fully able to bridge the generational divide and win the respect of older Whitelakians. This contributes to the film’s exploration of intergenerational conflict, and seems particularly relevant in a day and age when social-media has allegedly allowed us to live in political-bubbles, that make it even harder to speak persuasively to our political adversaries or even acknowledge that they exist.
Taking Woodstock is slightly on the long side, and does not have a story that will blow viewers away. At the same time, it is not dull, and its regular introduction of new, charismatic characters will keep viewers engaged, while the film submerses them into its broader celebration of counter culture and the generation that embodied it.