“By the time we got to Woodstock, we were half a million strong . . . ”
Joni Mitchell, who wrote those lyrics, wasn’t there. But you didn’t have to be there to be there. The Woodstock festival, which marks its 40th anniversary this summer, came to symbolize a sixties utopia of peace, love and LSD that came and went like a mirage. Arriving a month after the Apollo moon landing, it was the last blossom of an age of innocence when anything seemed possible, briefly. But even before the horde of half a million had turned the New York State Thruway into a parking lot, and a farmer’s field into a sea of mud, the bloom was already off the rose of flower power. The week before the three-day festival, which began on Aug. 15, 1969, the Charles Manson murders revealed psychedelia’s dark side. And in the spring of the same year, Easy Rider lit up the Cannes Film Festival with a drug-fuelled joyride that veered into the ultimate bad trip.
Last weekend, 40 years after Easy Rider, the mother of all rock festivals and the mother of all film festivals merged in an acid flashback on the French Riviera with the premiere of Taking Woodstock, an ode to hippie bliss by Ang Lee, the Oscar-winning director of Brokeback Mountain. Seeing hippydom feted amid the ritual opulence of Cannes seemed incongruous, to say the least.
After the premiere, a party for the film began on the beach at midnight. A rock band costumed like a touring company of Hair played dutiful covers of ’60s hits. Some of the more adventurous guests grooved modestly on the dance floor, balancing plastic flutes of champagne. Orange gerbera flowers, which looked like giant daisies, were strewn artfully around as party favours. Otherwise, hippie touches were minimal. No campfires on the beach, no billows of marijuana smoke, no brown acid. At the sole food station, a pair of servers in tall chef toques used tea-light candles to set marshmallows on fire before handing them, like perverse hors d’oeuvres, to puzzled folks in tuxedos and evening gowns. It was hard to say if it was a period touch or a nouveau recession joke.
One of 20 features in competition at the 62nd annual Cannes festival, Taking Woodstock premiered before a black-tie crowd of 2,300 who watched with reverence, curiosity and amusement. But they seemed to miss some of the jokes in a picture that Lee says is his first comedy in 14 years after a glut of tragedies. Not that he’s making fun of hippies. Far from it. This is a movie from a man who as a child of the Cold War in Taiwan watched Woodstock on the TV news, and now wishes he’d been there. “Woodstock planted a seed,” Lee told me. “All the good issues are an extension of what that generation was about.” In fact, Obama’s inauguration could be seen as a Woodstock moment. That day, Lee was surprised to get a call from his 18-year-old son, who skipped school to attend: “I said, ‘How did you get there?’ He said, ‘Me and my friends talked about it like going to Woodstock. It’s a historic moment. You have to participate.’ ”
As an aging boomer—who wasn’t actually at Woodstock but tried hard to make up for it—I’ve just begun to realize that Woodstock’s legacy is now a faded pop artifact for a generation that doesn’t remember when people said “far out” instead of “awesome.”
But the music of the ’60s has certainly persisted. And one reason Lee’s movie met with mixed reactions in Cannes is that it tries to carve an intimate drama out of an event that was so definitively enshrined by an epic documentary: Michael Wadleigh’s Woodstock (1970). With acts like Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane and the Who—plus that muddy Eden of half a million extras—the three-hour film was a pop culture landmark. Due to be re-released as an expanded DVD for this summer’s anniversary, it pioneered a whole movement of verité filmmaking, along with Monterey Pop and Gimme Shelter. They weren’t just concert movies, but candid portraits of a generation discovering itself. Lee’s film (which opens Aug. 14) pays homage to Wadleigh’s doc with split-screen imagery and slices of 16-mm footage. But he can’t begin to compete with it.
“We cannot recreate half a million people,” the soft-spoken director told me early this week, as he held court with his long-time screenwriter/producer, James Schamus, in a penthouse suite of the Carlton hotel. “And I can’t put a woman in big hair and say, ‘That’s Janis Joplin.’ But what I can do is take a dramatic approach and see how it influenced a small part of the world.”
Lee’s movie looks at Woodstock through the other end of the telescope: like most people who were actually there, it gets nowhere near the stage. And the music stays in the background, as if drifting in from afar. Which is how most people actually heard it. Based on a 2007 memoir by Elliot Tiber, Taking Woodstock is the story of an interior designer based in Greenwich Village who ends up hosting the festival while trying to salvage the family business, a seedy Catskills motel owned by his Jewish immigrant parents—a sad-sack father (Henry Goodman) and a money-grubbing battle-axe of a mother (Imelda Staunton). Commandeering the chamber of commerce in White Lake, N.Y., Tiber offers a permit to Woodstock’s organizers after another community backs out. And he recruits dairy farmer Max Yasgur (Eugene Levy) to rent his land to the festival organizers.
Descending on this sleepy hollow by helicopter and limousine, they are led by Michael Lang (Jonathan Groff), a shrewd hippie impresario, who incarnates both the sixties dream and its commercial sellout. As he turns the motel into the festival base camp, Tiber’s parents cash in. Slapstick ensues as they are bullied by local anti-Semites and Mafia racketeers. But salvation arrives in the form of a transvestite ex-Marine (Liev Schreiber), who takes charge of security as a cow pasture is turned into New York’s third-largest city.
Taking Woodstock, in other words, is a show about putting on a show. It’s also a rite-of-passage story about Tiber, a closeted gay, who finally wades into the festival fray, drops acid, and changes his life. Making his film debut, Demetri Martin, a comedian with his own cable show, is reminiscent of the young Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate (1967), and the reference is driven home by Simon & Garfunkel guitar riffs on the score.
Tiber’s Jewish mother comes across as a monstrous caricature, but the movie’s detailed evocation of the counterculture is surprisingly authentic, given that hippies have become a Hollywood cliché. “For Ang, the biggest task was to take on the physicality of what people in 1969 were like,” says Schamus, explaining that they were skinny without being gym-toned. “They had these natural bodies. The big joke was finding extras who weren’t shaved like porn stars.”
The extras were inculcated at “hippie camp,” but Lee was trying to capture a lost vibe, not just a period look. What mattered, he says, was “their attitude, the look on their face, the slouch—and the way they connect to each other spiritually.”
In fact, he gave the crew signed copies of Be Here Now, the 1971 bestseller by Baba Ram Dass, the former cohort of LSD guru Timothy Leary. “It’s very easy to make fun of hippie culture,” says Schamus, 49, who discovered Woodstock as a kid through his older brother’s triple-disc soundtrack on vinyl. “I spent hours listening to that album. But by the time I got to be a teenager, hippies were embarrassing. It took me many years to have an appreciation for a culture that allowed itself to be that experimental.”
The movie tries to make hippies hip again. And in Cannes its young stars said they envied a time when people got wired without technology. “If you were a 23-year-old guy in Woodstock and didn’t have a phone, you were just hanging out,” says Emile Hirsch, who portrays a shell-shocked Vietnam vet. “Whoever you were with, that’s who you were with. These days you’re with who you’re with plus the 10 people you’re text-messaging.” Martin concurs: “If you watch the Woodstock documentary, you don’t see a whole lot of people hamming it up for the camera, and they’re not putting it on their websites, because websites don’t exist. You wonder if it were happening today what it would be like. Would people be able to go beyond themselves and care about something bigger?”
Both actors agree that Barack Obama’s election was the closest thing to Woodstock they’ve experienced. “Everyone was in such an amazing mood,” says Hirsch. “You could just go up to someone you’d never met and strike up a great conversation. It was almost like Woodstock.”
Cannes, meanwhile, is about as far from Woodstock as one can imagine. At the party on the beach after Lee’s premiere, women in gowns sit at tables by the lapping surf, bent over BlackBerries as if in prayer. Lee and his stars, ushered toward couches in a VIP area, look a little dazed. You can sense a polite response, which is later confirmed when the reviews are less than ecstatic. “When you go into competition in Cannes with a comedy,” says Schamus, “you are walking with a target on your back, because you’re not living up to the high seriousness of your station. I thought Americans would go for it. As it happens, every country in the world except the U.S. went for it.”
In a quiet corner of the party, a couple of veteran distributors share a joint, complain about critics, and reminisce about how Cannes used to be fun. How you would hang out over lunch and wine, unreachable by phone for hours on end. And critics would join them, rather than rushing off to blog an opinion. They would forget the time and talk about film as if nothing else mattered.