Faking Woodstock

Written by Burl on September 7th, 2009

If you remember the ’60s, then you weren’t there, ha ha. That old line is probably being used in each and every review of Ang Lee’s new film, “Taking Woodstock.” While I don’t remember what happened last week, I remember the ’60s quite well.
In Honolulu, Woodstock was pretty far away. I followed it in the newspaper, but frankly, at that time, rock’n'roll wasn’t considered “real” news. There wasn’t much reported. Essentially, the early reports of people streaming into upstate New York predicted a horrible disaster, then there were several days of no news at all as the festival occurred, and then afterward, stories explored residents’ surprise that things went better than expected. It was sort of a national sigh of relief.
Then word began leaking out that the festival had been bigger, wilder, more mysterious and magical than anticipated.
School started, my junior year. On the first day of class, I was trying to pitch woo at the cute girl who sat behind me in English class. Her name was Patti and she had been born in Germany and still had a little accent. The subject of Woodstock came up and a cloud passed over her face. She muttered something.
“I was there,” she said, darkly. I vas dere.
Where, Woodstock? Suddenly Patti was even more interesting.
“Yah,” she said. After some urging — it was like pulling teeth — Patti told me how she happened to be there. Her folks were in New York City while transiting to Hawaii, and she bought a ticket to the festival and caught a Greyhound north, and then hitchhiked toward Bethel. The roads grew crowded, then gridlocked. It rained. She slept in mud in a field. She never got within five miles of the stage. Occasionally some faint music would drift over the treetops. She was cold and wet and miserable.
Patti shuddered. It was horrible, she said. It was like how her parents described being refugees in wartime Germany.
A year later the “Woodstock” documentary cemented the sunny popular image of the festival in our heads, and over the passage of time, it became apparent what a seminal event it was. I’m pretty sure, though, that Patti, wherever she is, hasn’t changed her opinion.
“Taking Woodstock” is a total flashback. No other word for it. Whether you were at Woodstock or at any number of music festivals of the time, the movie is a Wayback Machine. I don’t know how Ang Lee did it. It’s not just the period cinema verite camera tricks — the people in the movie actually look like 1969 people, not like 2009 people decked out in cringeworthy “hippie” costumes.
The movie is well-acted and more serious than you might expect, with excellent production. Why not? It’s Ang Lee. It succeeds because it has a legitimate story arc.
It’s also a recounting of a historical event, and successfully transports us to a different time. Generally, reality works against historical films. In “Tora Tora Tora” and “Titanic,” were you really surprised by third-act plot developments? The demands of actuality hang over a traditional story arc like an anvil on a string.
The really successful historical films put you not just in the shoes of people of that period, but in their thought processes as well.
Woodstock is farther away from us today than the Pearl Harbor attack was from the veterans who made “Tora Tora Tora.” Oliver Sacks’ treatise “Musicophilia” postulates that the part of the cerebellum that stores musical memory is the deepest, warmest, most welcoming and stable region of the brain. Your last memories, as life goes glimmering, are likely to be musical. Far out, man!


4 Comments so far ↓

  1. Primo Kimo says:

    good review of the flick and.. of the “Woodstock/’69 era syndrome”. SB should print em.
    see behind the scenes/making of… at apple trailers.

  2. John Martini says:

    Nice writeup, Burl. I also followed the traditional news coverage of Woodstock during August 1969 that initially reported the festival as a disaster-in-the-making, then shifted to a tone of dodging-the-bullet.

    My first inkling that something spectacular had occurred came the following week when Dick Cavett had Jefferson Airplane on his show and they were raving about what had just transpired in Bethel. Grace Slick was absolutely cranked up to the maximum, and used the word “man” about a thousand times during the interview. (Crank may indeed have played a part.)

    That Cavett show was also noteworthy because Airplane performed “Volunteers” and Grace sang the complete, uncensored lyrics including, “Up against the wall, motherf**kers!”

    (Wonder what the FCC fine for that little stunt would be today?)

  3. Kurt Rebello says:

    My early memories of Woodstock? Glimpses of the movie through a heavily steamed up windshield while making out in the back seat of a high school friend’s car during a double date on a rainy night at the Kailua Drive-In. I later wished I had paid more attention to the movie…

  4. Primo Kimo says:

    why, Kurt? was she/he that forgettable?

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