If you are nostalgic for Woodstock this summer and feel the need to see a movie about it, your best bet is to get your hands on Michael Wadleigh's Woodstock (1970), the definitive historical documentary about the legendary 1969 music festival, and one of the best concert documentaries ever made. In the shadow of the comprehensive Woodstock, Ang Lee's new drama, Taking Woodstock, is merely a whimsical little footnote. But it's a well made, engaging little footnote—and one that any history buff or child of the counterculture will likely enjoy.
Adapted from the book Taking Woodstock: A True Story of a Riot, a Concert, and a Life by Elliot Tiber and Tom Monte, the film is essentially the telling of the Woodstock story through the eyes of one young man—Elliot (Demetri Martin)—who plays a tangential but important role in the whole undertaking. It's a true coming-of-age story set against the backdrop of one of the most iconic events of the 20th century.
In the summer of '69, Elliot is helping his Jewish parents (played by Imelda Staunton and Henry Goodman) run their struggling Catskills motel, the El Monaco, in the upstate New York town of White Lake. Elliot is the president of the White Lake chamber of commerce, which allows him the authority to sign permit requests for things like music festivals. When Elliot gets word that a major music and arts festival has lost its permit in the neighboring town, he steps in and helps arrange for the festival to come to his town. Several phone calls and meetings ensue with festival promoter Michael Lang (Jonathan Groff), whose staff takes up residence in the El Monaco as they frantically try to organize what promises to be a massive event. Among Elliot's key contributions to bringing about Woodstock is his help in finding the perfect location for the event—the 600-acred dairy farm owned and operated by Max Yasgur (Eugene Levy). Soon the wheels are turning and the stage is being built, and hippies from all over the country are pouring into White Lake to be a part of "3 Days of Peace and Music."
But as much as this film is a "behind-the-scenes" look at how Woodstock was planned and carried out, it is also a tale of one young man, Elliot, and the things he discovered about himself, his family, and the world during the crazy days of August 15-18, 1969. The film is largely about his rocky relationship with his parents, his journey of sexual discovery (the film strongly indicates, though never says explicitly, that Elliot is gay), and his emerging existential assertiveness as he begins to take control over his own life and choices.
Elliot's journey isn't terribly unique, of course. Of the 500,000-plus young people who made the pilgrimage to Woodstock that weekend, certainly there were many others in similar places of self-discovery. The film's focus on Elliot indicates that director Lee and writer James Schamus (Brokeback Mountain) believe his story to be representative of the broader youth movement of the time—the universal story of a disenfranchised, spiritually confused counterculture that was at odds with the post-war ideals of their parents' generation. These kids were at Woodstock not just to hear music, but to glory in the massive company of their peers and compatriots and experience the world as they would have it be: peaceful, fun, trippy, loving, and free of the impersonal machinery of the bureaucratic, technocratic, soul-deadening military industrial complex.