Director : Ang Lee
Screenplay : James Schamus (based on the book by Elliot Tiber with Tom Monte)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2009
Stars : Demetri Martin (Elliot Teichberg), Imelda Staunton (Sonia Teichberg), Henry Goodman (Jake Teichberg), Jonathan Groff (Michael Lang), Emile Hirsch (Billy), Liev Schreiber (Vilma), Eugene Levy (Max Yasgur), Dan Fogler (Devon), Dean Morgan (Dan Jeffrey), Skylar Astin (John Roberts), Kevin Chamberlin (Jackson Spiers), Kelli Garner (VW Girl), Paul Dano (VW Guy)
Ang Lee’s Taking Woodstock is, quite literally, all over the place. At times a vibrant and sympathetic portrait of the counterculture’s most visible evocation of the power of peace, love, and music, it is at other times a snarky social comedy about the misguided notions of the past. Its central focus is on the backstage mania that led to the legendary Woodstock Music & Art Fair, but it is also saddled with side stories that are meant to put specific faces on the issues of the time (mainly gay liberation and the effects of Vietnam), but feel meandering and unfocused. Lee and his very talented artistic crew effectively reconstruct rural upstate New York during the summer of 1969 when it was descended upon by half a million young people, and when the film manages to transcend the unavoidable hippie clichés, there is a palpable sense of what it must have been like for such an unlikely location to become the center of a cultural revolution.
In a sense, then, the film is at its best when it’s playing time machine, transporting us back to a seminal moment when everything seemed possible. Lee has already proved that he has a keen eye and ear for recreating the feel of recent American history (particularly in 1997’s The Ice Storm, which took place in the Nixon era, and 2005’s Brokeback Mountain, which stretched from the early 1960s to the present), but what he did so well in his earlier films--seamlessly merging character and theme into his reconstruction of time and place--feels flat and often forced in Taking Woodstock. Although the film starts off confidently with a humorous tone that makes its history lesson feel breezy and light, about halfway through there is a studious attempt to say something important, although exactly what that something is is anyone’s guess. Given the tenor of the Woodstock era, it is all too easy to affix the film’s meaning as having something to do with finding yourself, which is about as lazy and clichéd as the film’s obligatory and inescapable Day-Glo acid sequence.
The central character is Elliot Teichberg (played by floppy-haired comedian and semi-regular Daily Show contributor Demetri Martin), a section of whose memoir was used for the basis of James Schamus’s screenplay. At the time, Elliot was in his mid-20s, splitting his time between trying to make a name for himself as an art designer in New York City and helping his Russian-Jewish émigré parents (Imelda Staunton and Henry Goodman) run a ramshackle motel in the tiny town of Bethel, New York. When Elliot hears the news that the permit for the Woodstock music festival has been pulled in the neighboring town of Wallkill, he decides to use the permit he has already obtained for his own annual music festival (which consists of playing records in the yard behind the motel) to draw the Woodstock organizers to the open fields owned by his neighbor Max Yasgur (Eugene Levy). Almost immediately a helicopter lands and out pops Michael Lang (Jonathan Groff), the wild-haired brainchild behind Woodstock whose preternaturally calm disposition and unwavering confidence in all things far out make him feel as if he is operating in another dimension altogether.
The rest of the story unfolds as the Woodstock organizers descend on Bethel with only a few weeks to put together a massive three-day music festival that will eventually draw some 500,000 people from all over the country, an influx that necessitates the shutting down of all the local highways. There is inherent drama and comedy in these proceedings, and the film glides along quite smoothly when the focus is on Woodstock taking shape against all odds (although the resentment of the disgruntled locals, who are hopped up on rumors that hippies will overrun them and their morals, is oddly marginalized to the point of nonexistence). However, the film needs some kind of emotional core, which Lee attempts to fill with Elliot and his coming into his own as a result of the Woodstock experience, which boils down to his coming out of the closet with some help from a hunky construction worker, natch. (As depicted in the film, Elliot comes to a full realization of his sexuality during the course of the music festival, although in real life he had already long since embraced his homosexuality since he claims to have been one of the main instigators at the seminal Stonewall riot in Greenwich Village, which happened earlier that summer.)
It is not that Elliot’s coming out (to himself, at least) is not a worthy hinge for the film’s emotional pull, but rather that the film’s handling of it makes the realization feel too secondary, as if the whole subplot could have been left on the cutting room floor with little damage. Character in general tends to be problematic in Taking Woodstock, as witnessed by Elliot’s parents, who are so cartoonish in their Easter European belligerence that it’s hard to take them seriously (especially the otherwise impeccable Imelda Staunton, whose shrill Jewish mother routine borders on hysteria). Liev Schreiber also feels stranded as a burly transvestite who shows up to offer his security services, although Emile Hirsch does well with a small role as a recently returned Vietnam veteran struggling with PTSD.
Interestingly, Lee avoids showing the legendary concert itself almost entirely, giving us a single long shot of the stage surrounded by hundreds of thousands along the hillsides and also allowing us to hear brief bits of the performances in the background. This is to the film’s advantage since it avoids the necessity of actors doing historical drag, and it also keeps us firmly focused on the ins and outs of what was happening behind the scenes, rather than on stage. What Woodstock meant in the grand scheme of things is also curiously muddled, as the majority of the film is clearly on the side of the music organizers and the ideal for which they were striving, but then it ends in the aftermath of the concert, with Lang telling Elliot on the muddied, garbage-strewn hillside that he is off to plan “a truly free concert” featuring the Rolling Stones, which we all know is the disastrous Altamont concert. For all its love of outsiders, social rebellion, and free love, this final line of dialogue can’t help but make you feel that Taking Woodstock is telling us that it was all for naught.
Copyright ©2009 James Kendrick
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