We needed just a little more time in Max's field.

Taking Woodstock

An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis


 

            “Taking Woodstock” is a pleasant disappointment - pleasant because it’s a quiet look at the origins of a chaotic subject, and a disappointment because no matter what is happening on screen, we all want to walk across that field to hear Jimi Hendrix play “The Star Spangled Banner.” Take us there, just for a few minutes, Mr. Lee. But he never does.
 

            Director Ang Lee, a Taiwanese with highly sensitive antennae, appears to love examining cubbyholes of American culture (“The Ice Storm,” “Brokeback Mountain”). And yet, talented as he is, he often seems an outsider burrowing almost inside the American psyche, but not quite. In this case he hits the target he has set – the raw beginnings of Woodstock – but misses the target the audience really wants – a piece of the happening itself.

            More than forty years ago Elliot Tiber left the rural quiet of his hometown, Bethel, NY, for the promise of Greenwich Village, only to be summoned back by his aging father to save the family business – a motel on a rapid slide to failure. As head of the Bethel Chamber of Commerce, Elliot heard that the neighboring town of Wallkill had denied a concert permit to a group looking to mount an outdoor folk festival. With the acquired touch of a New Yorker, he called the festival producers and offered his family’s motel, the El Monaco, as a staging area for the festival crew. The growing crowd spread down the road to Max Yasgur’s (Eugene Levy) field. And so both Elliot and Max and the now famous field of grass and mud slid into history.

            It’s not hard to believe for even a moment that Elliot’s parents, Jake (Henry Goodman) and Sonia (Imelda Staunton) have let their motel sink into ruin. They are cranky with customers and have no idea how to run the place; if Wallkill hadn’t denied the festival permit, the mild-mannered Elliot might have presided over the family’s descent to oblivion. But instead, he spotted the opening and picked up the phone.

            As the story picks up steam (an overstatement), it’s fun to watch the innocence in the crowd at the El Monaco. Kids cavort awkwardly naked in a pond; a collective hug and a kiss, guitars, folksingers, and peace signs sprout everywhere. Forget the mud and the sewage; this was Woodstock, the shot fired by the hippies and heard round the world. It was a chaotic 3-day campout that no one there would ever forget.

            If ever there were an apt tagline for a story about the origins of Woodstock, it surely is the one attached to this movie: “A Generation Began in his Backyard.” But Ang Lee has told his tale in the mildest of ways. I think many of us left the theater wishing we were humming a song by Joan Baez or Arlo Guthrie. We needed just a little time in Max Yasgur’s field where a festival turned into a legend.
 

 


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