Ang Lee may be reprimanding me for not seeing the Woodstock documentary but he sure is doing an amazing job replicating the epic hippie explosion that is the iconic 1969 concert. Taking Woodstock is one of the most authentic period pieces I’ve encountered as Lee scans the backed up country road of Volkswagons and drugged out dancing girls I actually had to question if I was watching actual archival footage. The environment that is the sleepy town of White Lake before then and during the festival is what makes this movie so intriguing. You watch in wonder at how these events all fell in place. Lee exquisitely expresses the serendipity of one family’s need to save their failing motel and the entire counterculture movement coming together for something magical.
In the middle of this unexpected backdrop is Elliot (Demitri Martin), the closeted son of the motel owners and the acting president of White Lake’s Chamber of Commerce that bends the rules to have his permit applicable to Woodstock. He is the audience surrogate to experience the wonderment without ever seeing a band play. It’s also about coming into his sexuality in this suddenly accepting environment while under the watchful eye of his Russian immigrant parents (played by Imelda Staunton and Henry Goodman). Martin is quite an odd casting choice due to his meager acting experience at the time. He may not be at the level of the stacked cast surrounding him including Jonathan Groff, Liev Schreiber, Emile Hirsch and my personal favorite Dan Fogler but his awestricken innocence is what the role calls for. Even if he doesn’t have all the acting chops, the colorful cast is what makes the film really pop as the film’s focus is the behind the scenes talent and not the musicians on stage. The parents who accommodate the youthful hippies as well as assimilate into their lifestyle plus the entourage of Michael Lang’s (Groff) concert coordinators are the hardworking backbone of the event and bring anecdotal life to the setting.
In 2017 the movie goes down somewhat bittersweet. You watch this narrative of peace and love prevailing and yet where we are now, it feels like the grumping old white men who didn’t want the concert to happen still won out. There’s a scene where Elliot is at the town bar and amidst a dance party, is kissed by the guy he’s been crushing on and the whole crowd cheers. It feels like such a progressive moment in a movie set in 1969 but the LGBT community is still fighting for their rights nearly fifty years later. Lee is aware of the depressing beauty of this situation as one of the concert organizers played by Mamie Gummer says “Perspective shuts out the universe, it keeps the love out.” Individual bias and selfishness creates the most roadblocks. At a moment where we are witnessing a majority of our government in favor of tax cuts and money more than human rights, it’s a reminder of our inability to move forward due to greed and personal gain. Lee is inviting you to appreciate this concert that stood for freedom and solidarity but gives some perspective on its impact or lack thereof. I watch this and would love to believe that the half a million twentysomethings in attendance remained progressive people of change throughout the decades but probably some of them voted for Trump. The world is pretty cruel but at least there are instances of bliss to show us the magnificence we are capable of if we act in harmony.