For all the talk that the fifties and sixties were ‘simpler times’, I can show you Vietnam, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Suez Crisis, the Space Race, McCarthyism, Stonewall. But The Woodstock Festival, which crash-landed in a dairy field in New York State in the late 60’s, was to all intents and purposes, a giant pop-culture counterpoint to all that angst, a peaceful, joyous, somewhat psychedelic “coming out” of a million and a half people.
I was too young to know anything about Woodstock at the time, and having been raised in its aftermath as a preppy drone, I’d always assumed it was full of slap-able barefoot hippies going all hey-shoo-wow on us. I never thought for a moment that it might be something with which I would identify irrevocably – an anti-establishment explosion delivered without violence or polemic. That’s the true surprise of Ang Lee’s snapshot-of-the-times, Taking Woodstock, a quirky, thoughtful, intimate look at how the festival came about, and its impact on some of the people who were there.
I didn’t absolutely love the film (amongst other things, the soundtrack, of all things, is maddeningly understated) but I did love the idea of the film, and I relished the positive thoughts and the feelings it engendered about celebrating humanity and diversity and common goodness. Sadly, I’m probably the kind of guy that still wouldn’t have gone to Woodstock first time round, but at least there’s the consolation that I would have regretted that decision…..
The movie is of course firmly set in and around Bethel and White Plains, in New York State, but to recreate it, it moves around the State a bit, to East Chatham and New Lebanon, with Cherry Plan State Park playing the role of pre-Woodstock Woodstock, and the town of Schodack playing it post its descent into mud and chaos. Also, in spite of the vast cinematic record of the event itself, no actual Woodstock footage was used (though the movie did re-enact a couple of memorable scenes, the walking nuns flashing the peace sign being the most famous.) That caused problems of it’s own: according to The Washington Post, screenwriter and producer James Schamus noted that the biggest challenge in casting extras was to find people “who were not working out all the time, and who still had pubic hair…..”