One of the most recycled sayings about the '60s—"If you remember them, you probably weren't there"—is also one of the dumbest. We get the joke: we were all too blitzed on chemicals and weed to have anything but the most foggy recollection. The truth is, for the generation that came of age in those -consciousness-stretching days, those memories are probably the most vivid of a lifetime. It's everything after that we can't always remember. Nineteen sixty-nine? Clear as a bell. Nineteen ninety-nine? Kind of a blur.
Everybody remembers Woodstock, whether you were there or not. Now, 40 years later, the flashbacks are coming hot and heavy: there's Ang Lee's affectionate Taking Woodstock, based on the memoirs of Elliot Tiber, as well as a just-published memoir, The Road to Woodstock, from concert promoter Michael Lang. Lang, as anyone who saw Michael Wadleigh's unforgettable documentary Woodstock will recall, was the unflappable, angelic-looking entrepreneur who rode around on a motorcycle with a halo of hippie hair and an enigmatic smile. Watching Jonathan Groff play him in Taking Woodstock, you'll get a powerful sense of déjà vu, for many of the images Lee conjures up are exact replicas of Wadleigh's. Where most movies about the era overdo the bell-bottoms and beads, Lee gets the '60s look (down to the untoned bodies) just right.
Lee and screenwriter James Schamus have no intention of offering a revisionist portrait. Just like Lee's The Wedding Banquet, Taking Woodstock is a story of personal liberation, channeled through the blossoming of Elliot (Demetri Martin), whose immigrant Jewish parents (Imelda Staunton and Henry Goodman) run the ramshackle motel that was the headquarters for the Woodstock staff. Elliot, as head of the chamber of commerce, introduces them to Max Yasgur, and helps ward off opposition to the longhaired freaks. Elliot, almost incidentally, is gay, and the love-peace-and-harmony vibes of the festival facilitate his coming out. He's also aided by Vilma, a cross-dressing ex-Marine played by Liev Schreiber with a delicacy that belies his bulk.
The biggest departure of Taking Woodstock is that it bypasses the music—the raison d'être of the whole endeavor. The filmmakers know there's no point competing with the Wadleigh film. Lee wants to give us a contact high, and in his psychedelic evocation of Elliot's nighttime acid high he comes wondrously close. Some will call his Woodstock naive, but that's what he intends: the movie is a sweet, anecdotal, comic embrace, a gentle reminder that it was once possible to overcome the cynicism of the times and believe that "the flow" leads in a benign direction. That dream seems faraway, but it stirred this ex-hippie's soul.