Taking On Taking Woodstock

Last night I saw Ang Lee’s new film, Taking Woodstock. While the various merits and demerits of the movie are highly debatable (in other words, maybe wait to see this one on DVD), Taking Woodstock did its best to transport viewers back to Woodstock. Despite overwrought dialogue and the sketchy-at-best plot arc, the film managed to get in some pretty amazing shots that I can only imagine gave the feel of what Woodstock must have felt like. Miles and miles of cars lined-up with young people weaving through the automobiles, trying to get as close as they could to the concert, in reality already having arrived just by virtue of being there at all. Volkswagen busses painted psychedelic colors, a young girl calling her mother from a pay phone, long-haired boys holding up signs reading “Dylan, please show up!” (even though we know he doesn’t). These crowd scenes attempt to paint a picture of what being at Woodstock must have really felt like. They were, by far, the best part of the movie. The soundtrack was lackluster, and for a concert that proclaimed to be about peace, love, and music, there was almost no mention of the actual concert or any bands. Lee took the focus off of the music, and directed his lens towards the vibe, the mood, the people, and the pivotal feelings given off by the most famous concert of all time.

My point is not to give a review of the film. I knew that the movie wasn’t going to be great going into it, but as a music fan, I wanted to see it anyways. It’s not all that often one gets to see a fictional movie about rock and roll music, and there’s only so many times one person can watch Almost Famous. As a music fan, what was striking to me about Taking Woodstock were the comparisons it drew to my own personal experiences with music festivals, forty years later. What made Woodstock one of the, if not The, most pivotal event in rock and roll history, and why do we still go to Coachella, Bonnaroo, and Lollapalooza year after year? What do these modern festivals lack that make them so inferior to the original rock and roll music fest? Hundreds of thousands of young people still peacefully congregate to hear live music and do a lot of drugs, but with almost no historic notice. Will we ever have another event like Woodstock again, one that crystallizes an entire generation, or is everything far too advertised and commodified to see the likes of that again. Is this our fault, or is it merely a product of the times? While our parents were war-conscious and peace-loving, do we merely buy into capitalist culture, spending $200 on concert tickets just to say we were there? And what was so great about Woodstock, after all? Are today’s music festivals that different?

The most comparable festival to Woodstock that I’ve experienced is Bonnaroo, another festival that began with a peace and love ethos. Originally a jam-band-fan mecca, Bonnaroo has evolved from its roots to include far more indie rock and hip-hop, drawing a much larger fan-base. Hence, my attendance in 2007. Instead of riding up to the festival with a car full of friends, spontaneously migrating to Tennessee to catch today’s most influential musical acts, my friends and I planned and saved, strategizing our entrance time so that the festival’s organizers would direct our car towards a choice campsite. Our cars were systematically searched for glass bottles, and we were corralled into our designated area. We waited in line to get into the festival each day, and there was a systematic method for clearing fans out from in front of the main stages after each major act performed. There was organized food, showers for ten bucks, and row after row after row of restrooms. Not exactly the free-for-all that Taking Woodstock romanticized.

But there were porta-potties portrayed in the film. They set up pay phones so that kids could call home. There were yoga classes organized around the music, just like at Bonnaroo. Were there hippies at Bonnaroo? Yes. Were there lots of drugs at Bonnaroo? Yes. Was the last line in Taking Woodstock that the founders of the festival would be suing each other for the money earned from the festival? Yes. By no means are today’s music festivals anything like Woodstock. But Lee’s new film made me rethink exactly why our festivals today aren’t the same. It’s not that my generation is shallow and capitalist-driven. We too are politically motivated, but have turned our fights to on-line presences. And Woodstock was clearly just as profit-driven as festivals are today. As awful as the film was, it showed that a moment in time is exactly that – a moment in time that can’t really be captured. The film’s failure ultimately points out that despite our best efforts, we can’t orchestrate something as culturally meaningful today. Not because my generation is morally bankrupt and self-absorbed, but because moments in time just can’t be manufactured, just like Lee couldn’t really encapsulate the whole mood of Woodstock in two hours (though he sure did try). Our rock and roll moment in the sun will come along, but it will come without warning and we won’t even know that it’s happened until it’s already come and gone. I can’t wait to watch the movie about it thirty years from now.

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– Madalyn Baldanzi


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