I’m the kind of person who sets rules for herself & then constantly questions them. For example, when I became a film critic, I set several rules for myself including never give away an ending without a “Spoiler Alert” (“Memo to Self: Jan, please do your best to avoid all mention of the specific contents of the second half of a film just in case you’re tempted!”), and never consult source material (especially novels) until after I’ve seen a film at least once. Rules like these sometimes give me headaches, but I think they help me avoid some of the things I hate most in the reviews of some of my colleagues. Then, every once in a while, I have an experience that convinces me my rules are the right ones for both me & my readers.
And so, when I heard Ang Lee was about to release a new film about Woodstock, I did the minimal amount of research required to confirm my gut feel that Elliot Tiber (author of the memoir which is Lee’s source book) was Jewish (making TAKING WOODSTOCK suitable for one of my monthly columns), & then I stopped… completely. Since I was a Jewish girl from New Jersey who graduated from high school in June of 1969 and started college in September of 1969, Woodstock was a treasured event buried deep in my memory bank. Therefore, I took particular care not to update my thoughts on the subject before seeing the film.
So when I tell you that I walked out of the critics’ screening saying: “Who is Jonathan Groff?!?!?” it’s because the film totally convinced me he was the star of the show, & not because I went in with any specific memories, visual or otherwise, of the real Michael Lang. So Saturday night I came home from a dinner party & saw that the History Channel was showing a doc about Woodstock from 11 PM to 1 AM. My husband groaned & went to bed, but I decided to “watch a little bit” before joining him. I ending up watching the whole thing! I was riveted! Here was a Woodstock story I could really believe in… even in the middle of the night… even with lots of commercials… And then, at the end, when the credits came up, there it was: “directed by Barbara Kopple.”
Unfortunately this made-for-TV film is not yet available on DVD. As soon as I know all of you can get it, I’ll write a full review. Meanwhile, let me just say this: I believe in the ‘60s with my whole heart & soul, & I truly believe the world is a better place since the ‘60s. I have met many men over the years who question this, but most women I know agree with me.
There are very few women in TAKING WOODSTOCK. Mamie Gummer plays a “Hippie Chick” attached to Michael Lang in some way never specified in the screenplay, and Imelda Staunton is badly miscast and ill-used as Elliot Tiber’s mother, but otherwise there are no essential female speaking parts. For whatever reason, Ang Lee decided to focus his “Woodstock film” on how one historical event affected the life of one gay man struggling to come out of the closet, that is, he decided to base his film on Elliot Tiber’s book (as opposed to, say, Michael Lang’s book). That was his choice, & I won’t criticize him for it. But I’m awfully glad Barbara Kopple’s doc is also available to complete the picture! You Go, Girl!!!