Woodstock, the concert, is not exactly front and center of director Ang Lee's comic history, Taking Woodstock. The movie, which opens Friday, is about how the iconic rock show came together, the misfits, dreamers and idealists who tried to mount a festival and were swept along by a seminal event, one that snowballed — or mudballed, in this case — into something that far exceeded their grasp.
The concert itself? In Taking Woodstock, it's a distant shimmer of light and faint notes of the music that passed into legend.
"Listen," one harried organizer tells another as the barely audible sounds of the opening act, folk singer Richie Havens, echo over a lake from a couple of miles off. "It's started."
"That was the most moving moment of Taking Woodstock for me," Lee says. "That scene is Woodstock, something calling, in the far distance, music that sounds like it comes from the center of the universe — so grand that it's spiritual, more an idea than a concert. ... It's not just lyrics when you hear it like that. It's his guitar, his voice, it's soul-calling-soul over a great distance."
Lee, 54, was 15 and living in Taiwan when the concert happened. "I remember the sea of people, men in long hair with guitars, something that looked really cool on our black-and-white TV. There wasn't much about Woodstock on our news, not like the moon landing that same summer. But we knew about it."
Over the years, the romance of the event grew in Lee's mind. When he came to America for film school and emerged as a filmmaker with The Wedding Banquet (1993), then became a star director with Sense & Sensibility (1995), Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) and Brokeback Mountain (2005), Woodstock stuck with him.
"We realized Woodstock was a last moment of innocence, this romanticized utopian moment. It grew and grew in my head," he said.
Talking to people who went to Woodstock didn't change Lee's romantic image of the event.
"They all mention the stench," he says, laughing. "I knew I would never capture that on film. But what was important was all these young people holding each other's hands, with little or no violence, for 'Three Days of Peace, Love and Music.' I wanted to get both sides of the story — the reality and the legend. But the romantic side of it was what kept it in my mind."
He happily pays homage to the great concert documentary Woodstock in his film, using split-screens to show the scale of what was happening. The documentary convinced him that it would be pointless to try to re-create the show itself.
"The abstract idea I had was to find a dramatic and feasible story that had a hint of the concert. Elliot Tiber's (memoir) Taking Woodstock gave me that."
Taking Woodstock is told from Tiber's point of view. That summer, he was a young guy trying to save his parents' crumbling motel when he saw a news item about promoters who could not secure a venue for their show; he made a phone call that made it happen.
"The movie has the legend, yes, but Woodstock was a plan to put on a show and make a lot of money," Lee says. "Michael Lang, who organized it, was an iconic, legendary figure. In real life, he was one of many businessmen working to make money out of this — concert people, townspeople. We had to have that, and all this counter-culture."
"That's a lot to get in. I don't think I missed anything."
One thing he made sure not to miss was an already celebrated acid-trip scene, which Lee re-created with lurid, liquid colors designed to make the viewer blurt "far out." Lee says he realized that "acid must have been the ideal way to experience something that huge, in the 'center of the universe' with all those people."
The director says he learned a lot from people who described an acid trip "as 'seeing the essence of things.' Woodstock was epic. But I hope I managed to get the essence of it with just that scene."