Sunday, August 9, 2009

Taking Woodstock

I almost believed in the Woodstock Nation again, just for a little while.

I had no plans for this weekend. But the phone rang and suddenly I was heading to the Tinker Street theatre here in Woodstock for an advance screening of "Taking Woodstock" and an exclusive interview with director Ang Lee and producer/writer James Schamus.

It was an accident - the guy who had knocked himself out arranging it was suddenly sick. A stomach bug trumps a bad back, so off I went.

An hour before the doors opened, there was a line of people waiting for the seats they'd paid $100 for. It was sponsored by the "Fiercely Independent" Woodstock Film Festival and there would be a Q and A as well as a reception afterwards.

I wasn't doing the reception. But I spoke with some of the people who were and asked them whether they went to the concert in 1969. No, the ones I spoke to didn't. They were too young. But they had a nostalgia for those times, for those ideas that they'd seen in their older brothers and sisters.

You know, of course, that Woodstock wasn't in Woodstock. But as Michael Lang said yesterday when asked why he never changed the name as the event bounced from town to town before it landed, "I didn't want to be part of the Wallkill Nation."

"What about the town of Woodstock now?" I asked the moviegoers, as some of them were locals.

"It's a parody of itself."

Not a promising mental state as the lights went down. But something happened as we watched the movie. Ang Lee, who didn't know a thing about the festival, who was a kid in Taiwan when it happened, who didn't even know it was held 40 miles from Woodstock, got it. He captured the warmth, the unbelievable sweetness of those times. He caught the innocence, the openness and the hope that was the hippie movement. It was a gathering of children and what seemed like the first deep breath of a new world. Or that's how those of us who weren't there see it. He caught the idealized Woodstock that we want to believe in.

The film's taken crap from critics because it's not about the concert. They miss the point. It is about the colliding of two cultures - the fifties Borscht Belt Catskills and the free-wheeling, wildly optimistic and unrealistic hippies who were trying to make the world into a Garden. It about the hard working, responsible young gay man who brought those worlds together.

As producer James Schamus said later, if you want to see a movie of the concert, that's been done. Go rent it.

This film pays homage to that one with the use of split screens. But that's where the similarities end. This is a story about the people, not the music. And the scene where Lee recreates the entire experience through the acid-distortions of two young peoples' eyes is one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen.

"Yes," my head said, "that's what it should have been like."

The interview with Lee and Schamus went well - they're very nice guys. And Lee has a sweetness that mirrors the people in this film. They seemed delighted that I "got it". They wanted to a make a movie showing the hearts behind the festival, showing how the concert changed their lives.

My favorite moment was afterwards. Michael Lang, in the film, is a laid back force of nature. He never wavers, he never worries, he never loses his cool. He has a vision and it's going to happen.

I stopped the real Michael Lang on the way out the door.

"Michael, was it as much fun as they made it seem like?"

He smiled. "More."

I walked down the streets of Woodstock, the town that is no longer the wild, rollicking place where I grew up and where I've come back to live. The live music, the smell of leather, the barefoot hippies, they're gone. A few burnouts remain, but it's mostly a weekend shopping spot for New Jersey visitors. The artists hide out in the hills. But I loved it again after seeing "Taking Woodstock." I loved it for what we thought it could be, and for the ideals we've never entirely abandoned, even those of us who weren't hippies, who weren't there. That was the world we believed could be. And maybe the best parts of it still could.

Taking Woodstock Trailer

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