Relatively late in Taking Woodstock, director Ang Lee's outsider's take on the colossal 1969 music festival, clean-cut protagonist Elliot Teichberg (Demetri Martin) decides to venture down from his family's motel-turned-event-headquarters to the center of the action. Lee depicts the barely operable road to Woodstock crowded with hippies, cops, protesters, makeshift food vendors, and other masses of humanity in an elongated take that rhymes — perhaps consciously — with the classic traffic-jam tracking shot in Jean-Luc Godard's 1967 film Weekend.
Godard, documenting late-'60s tumult as it happened, used the image as a vision of societal collapse. Lee, looking back 40 years at someone else's history, takes a more sanguine view — to the point that Elliot is being escorted on the back of a motorcycle by a cop who expected to be bashing hippie heads but is instead wearing a flower in his helmet.
You can argue about the accuracy of these perspectives, but there's little arguing about who got the more impressive shot: While Godard stuck with his unbroken tracking shot for more than seven audacious, increasingly provocative, brilliantly staged minutes, Lee's film lacks the stamina for as fully realized a counterpoint. And that juxtaposition is instructive, for as likeable as Lee's film is, its genial embrace of the mellow infects its narrative construction and visual sense.
Lee's film is a fond recreation of Woodstock as a cultural memory that mostly ignores the bad stuff — the bad trips, the sometimes bad music. Even the white-hot coals of culture war are doused in fresh chocolate milk.
The plot follows young upstater Elliot as he uses a permit for an annual "arts festival" on the grounds of his parents' soon-to-be-foreclosed motel "resort" to lure the suddenly homeless Woodstock festival, roping neighboring dairy farmer Max Yasgur (a pleasingly understated and nicely cast Eugene Levy) and his acres of grazing land into the deal. Some of the neighbors resist the idea of a hippie invasion in their quaint little town, but Max is undeterred: "I've heard more pleases and thank-you's from these kids than I've ever heard from those schmucks," he tells Elliot.
Lee's casting is compelling throughout — Imelda Staunton is Elliot's intense Minsk-bred mother, Emile Hirsch is a 'Nam burnout former classmate, and Liev Schreiber in a blond wig and sheer cotton dress works better than you could possibly expect.
Lee uses split-screen imagery in homage to the original Woodstock film, but his characters never quite make it to "the center of the universe" that the concert stage represents. Taking Woodstock is less interested in the stars onstage than the regular citizens the festival threw together, with a perspective that manages to feel both utopian and grounded.
This nostalgic take might be insufferable from an Oliver Stone or some other American boomer with an "I was there, man" perspective, but coming from Lee, its warmth is charming, especially since it seems to consciously be a vision of the late '60s as it should have been rather than a claim for what it was. It's a minor, imperfect work, but Taking Woodstock's gentle, open-hearted view of cops and queers, middle-class townsfolk and hippies is counter-mythology that's hard to resist.