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Taking Woodstock

There were half a million stories at the naked music festival; this is one of them.

It only seems that 500,000 versions of Woodstock have been told in the media this month for the 40th anniversary of those three days of peace and music. Still, the story of Eliot Tiber is probably more interesting than most.

In the summer of 1969, Tiber (renamed Teichberg and credibly played by Comedy Central’s Demetri Martin) fled personal difficulties in Greenwich Village back home to Bethel, New York, where he was trying to salvage his parents’ failing motel business. Reading how the festival’s promoters had had their permits yanked at the last moment, he contacted them to see if they might consider his neck of the woods. (As the president of the local chamber of commerce, he was able to facilitate that permit business.) Tiber introduced them to dairy farmer Max Yasgur, rented out his parent’s motel for the rest of the summer, and had a front-row seat to one of the most fabled events of a tumultuous decade.

As directed by the almost perversely eclectic Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain, The Hulk, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon), Taking Woodstock is entirely a backstage story. (The performers are unseen and barely heard, which places the film viewer in a role similar to that of most of those who actually attended the pre-video monitor event.) It’s at its best in recreating the increasingly frazzled state of the organizers as it becomes clear just how much their event is going to surpass their expectations.

My interested waned when Woodstock faded to become the background of Tiber’s story of personal growth and coming out. I suppose the idea is that Woodstock represents a kind of national childhood’s-end that Lee and regular producer-scripter James Schamus want Tiber to symbolize, but the story is too mired in specifics to work in that way. It’s still enjoyable for many nice period touches and fun performances from Jonathan Groff as the seemingly unflappable promoter Michael Lang, Eugene Levy as Max Yasgur, Liev Schreiber in the most unlikely drag performance since Wesley Snipes, and the British stage actor Henry Goodman, who all but steals the film as Tiber’s father.

m. faust

Watch the trailer for Taking Woodstock

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