Directed by Ang Lee
"No period exists purely as itself. People don't discard all their clothing", a Mad Men production designer told the Times earlier this month, suggesting how that show's last-year's-model rendering of the 1960s matches up with its continuing investigation into how fashions and morals persist, or don't, into new eras.
Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain was a gay love story that unfolded — or, rather, didn't and couldn't unfold — thousands of country miles away from the gay rights movement of the 60s, 70s and 80s; at the outset of Lee's new Taking Woodstock, it's the summer of '69 and The Sixties haven't yet made it to upstate New York.
"Interior decorator" Elliot Tiber (Demetri Martin, underplaying to hedge against limited range) is in Bethel, New York, where he pinches pennies at his parents' rat-trap motel (mom Imelda Staunton, doing rosacea-smattered, hog-bellowing Yiddish theater, won't wash gently used sheets), and orders "the usual" a lunch counter propping up senior citizens, milk farmers and fly fishermen; he also hears all about the Stonewall riots in phone calls from friends in the Village. The outside world comes calling, at last, when he secures permits and a location on behalf of the organizers of a certain music festival that took place 40 years ago this month.
The pressures of silent-majority nimby-ism weigh heavily — townie extras are each given a different prejudice to spit out at Elliot, in sequence — but the arrival of an alternative community, in all its flower-garlanded, leather-vested, free-loving glory, grants Elliot a sense of belonging. Music specifically, and hippie culture in general, is valued for its all-inclusiveness: we mostly don't see the music at Woodstock, but Elliot does get to look down and low into a literal sea of people — a computer-generated mass of undifferentiated humanity swaying blobbily — at the peak of a first-ever acid trip.
Said acid trip starts out in the back of a Volkswagen bus, with goofy undulating day-glos like a Ben and Jerry's box, naturally — because for as much as Taking Woodstock sets up the tension between the 60s as actually experienced by much of America and the 60s as serialized on VH1, it dips pretty frequently into the stock-photo file. TV news drones exposition from the background, while guests at Elliot's motel don't shower but do say "man" a lot, and Emile Hirsch does acting-class post-traumatic freakouts out as a flashback-plagued 'Nam vet. Does someone bake pot brownies? Oh yes, someone bakes pot brownies.
So, coming as it does at the end of this month of anniversary celebrations, call Taking Woodstock another Boomer nostalgia tie-in. But, this being an Ang Lee movie, it's at least a bighearted one. Despite the hippie-go-home townsfolk, Elliot's search for the (barely withheld) approval of his old-world father, and too few split-screen montages skimming the logistics of putting on an outdoor music festival, Lee is less interested in manufacturing conflict than in tearing up with joy at all the good vibes. Hippies take mudbaths and skinny dips, do the limbo, fornicate in the bushes, sleep dozens to a room, protest comically niche causes, pass the dutchie and hug cops. Lee restages the famously gridlocked roads leading into the festival as one big love-in; it's hard to feel too much ill will to someone who pans alongside an epic end-of-the-60s traffic jam and thinks, pace Godard, "it's all too beautiful."
Opens August 26