I hadn't planned to see Taking Woodstock today because it clashed with my plans to see the restoration of Powell and Pressburger's The Red Shoes, one of my all-time favourite films. But now I've seen Ang Lee's latest, I'm so very moved to write about this fabulous film at once that my entire evening will have to be revised. In short, Lee has done it again; he really has to be one of the most intelligent, subtle and all-round perfect directors working in the English language. What he has done here beats Cameron Crowe at his own game; it's like a Wes Anderson movie with real people and real feelings, and, for me, it's the first truly great movie to receive its world premiere in 2009.
Set 40 years ago this August, Taking Woodstock is an account of the setting up and staging of the three-day music festival that provided both the acme of the 60s experience and also the end, the quintessence of the moment – “the crest of a high and beautiful wave” – lamented by Johnny Depp's Hunter S Thompson in Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas. It begins in a decrepit NY state motel, where buttoned-up preppy Elliot Teichberg (Demetri Martin, a stand-up comedian) is helping his parents run their shoddy business. Elliot reads in the paper that a bunch of hippies have been kicked out of the neighbouring town where they planned to hold a rock festival, so he offers them his land as a new base. The motel grounds prove to be a swamp, but luckily a local farmer agrees to give them his field for $75,000, and, with time running out, a deal is begrudgingly struck.
But this is not just a film about a rock festival, and a good half of the movie's two-hour running time is about setting the scene. The background is in the foreground: there are no bad Janis Joplin impressions (the original was bad enough), and the famous brown acid scare is a minor detail in a very rich tapestry. As written by James Schamus, Taking Woodstock is a fantastic coming-of-age movie, even though its hero is well into his twenties. It's a film about identity and family, the past as well as the future – the most exciting thing about it is its optimism, and rather than tell the story (as survivors of the festival do) in a patronising I-guess-you-had-to-be-there tone, Lee's film pulls you into it and immerses you in the fearlessness, humanity and full visceral thrill of getting involved in something so primal and communal. There's barely any rock in it for an hour, either, until The Doors rumble on the soundtrack and the approaching hippie horde can be heard on the horizon.
It may seem from the pre-publicity that this is an ensemble movie, but it really isn't. Such promising talents as Emile Hirsch and Paul Dano have unobtrusive but key supporting roles, while Liev Schreiber as transvestite ex-Marine security guard Vilma is unbelievable. All these characters are simply part of Elliot's odyssey, and once the festival begins, Lee constructs Woodstock as a Heart Of Darkness-style journey through enlightenment and chaos, rather than simply misrule and madness. It's an apocalypse wow, and when Elliot takes a tab of very, very strong LSD and hallucinates to Love's mind-altering Forever Changes album, the (late) summer of love engulfs him in a surreal and beautiful CG-enhanced vision that anyone who's ever been to Glastonbury will appreciate or, depending on their drug intake, perhaps even remember. It also features one of the few non-naff acid trips in cinema history, as Elliot turns on, tunes in and drops out (briefly, back in time for breakfast) to join the revolution.
That this revolution will not last is addressed in a funny but ironic and surprisingly poignant final exchange (I won't spoil it), and it's worth noting here that Lee is on record as seeing Taking Woodstock as a partner piece to The Ice Storm, a film about the conservatism that consumed America after Dr Gonzo's beautiful wave finally broke. It is, at once, a paradox, a film that rhapsodises about America's past while pointing out its flaws and hypocrisies, and deals with hang-ups and prejudices while reminding us how great America citizens were and still are. As our guide through this glorious mess, Demetri Martin is just great, giving an unshowy performance that really centres the film and will, hopefully, allow the film to cross over to pockets of uptight America, even though the film contains copious nudity, coy gay sex and shedloads of drugs.
It is, quite frankly, awesome. It sends me, man, and it's just so far out, I can't wait to see it again.
One of the most recycled sayings about the '60s—"If you remember them, you probably weren't there"—is also one of the dumbest. We get the joke: we were all too blitzed on chemicals and weed to have anything but the most foggy recollection. The truth is, for the generation that came of age in those -consciousness-stretching days, those memories are probably the most vivid of a lifetime. It's everything after that we can't always remember. Nineteen sixty-nine? Clear as a bell. Nineteen ninety-nine? Kind of a blur.
Everybody remembers Woodstock, whether you were there or not. Now, 40 years later, the flashbacks are coming hot and heavy: there's Ang Lee's affectionate Taking Woodstock, based on the memoirs of Elliot Tiber, as well as a just-published memoir, The Road to Woodstock, from concert promoter Michael Lang. Lang, as anyone who saw Michael Wadleigh's unforgettable documentary Woodstock will recall, was the unflappable, angelic-looking entrepreneur who rode around on a motorcycle with a halo of hippie hair and an enigmatic smile. Watching Jonathan Groff play him in Taking Woodstock, you'll get a powerful sense of déjà vu, for many of the images Lee conjures up are exact replicas of Wadleigh's. Where most movies about the era overdo the bell-bottoms and beads, Lee gets the '60s look (down to the untoned bodies) just right.
Lee and screenwriter James Schamus have no intention of offering a revisionist portrait. Just like Lee's The Wedding Banquet, Taking Woodstock is a story of personal liberation, channeled through the blossoming of Elliot (Demetri Martin), whose immigrant Jewish parents (Imelda Staunton and Henry Goodman) run the ramshackle motel that was the headquarters for the Woodstock staff. Elliot, as head of the chamber of commerce, introduces them to Max Yasgur, and helps ward off opposition to the longhaired freaks. Elliot, almost incidentally, is gay, and the love-peace-and-harmony vibes of the festival facilitate his coming out. He's also aided by Vilma, a cross-dressing ex-Marine played by Liev Schreiber with a delicacy that belies his bulk.
The biggest departure of Taking Woodstock is that it bypasses the music—the raison d'être of the whole endeavor. The filmmakers know there's no point competing with the Wadleigh film. Lee wants to give us a contact high, and in his psychedelic evocation of Elliot's nighttime acid high he comes wondrously close. Some will call his Woodstock naive, but that's what he intends: the movie is a sweet, anecdotal, comic embrace, a gentle reminder that it was once possible to overcome the cynicism of the times and believe that "the flow" leads in a benign direction. That dream seems faraway, but it stirred this ex-hippie's soul.
A must-see movie happening! Wonderfully entertaining and vibrant! Director Ang Lee delivers a triumphant human comedy and a mind-bending trip back to the 60’s that is well worth taking. Terrific performances from a truly great ensemble cast. Demetri Martin is a real discovery. Jonathan Groff is sensational.
A groovy good time! Heartfelt and very funny!
Director Ang Lee’s nostalgic, sweet-spirited, pleasantly meandering new movie, Taking Woodstock is based loosely on Eliot Tiber’s memoir of how in 1969 he helped convince his parents’ upstate New York neighbors to lease their fields to the upcoming Woodstock music festival. In the resulting three days of peace, love and music, Tiber -- portrayed winningly by Demetri Martin as a nice, buttoned-down Jewish boy – sexually and liberates himself while at the epicenter of a defining counterculture moment in 20th century pop cultural history. Move on if you’re expecting an epic film that crackles and hums with one Jimi Hendrix’ revolutionary guitar licks or blistering Janis Joplin solos. Yes, there’s nudity, cavorting hippies, drugs, tie-dye, sliding in the mud and some bisexual fooling around, but Lee is far too smart a filmmaker to try and summon up Woodstock’s mind-blowing zeitgeist. (Besides, short of time travel, we at least have the knockout new Blu-Ray of director Michael Wadleigh’s Oscar-winning documentary, Woodstock. Lee’s move takes another route. Rich in period detail, aching with nostalgia, sentimental and as wayward as a stoner’s shaggy dog story, Taking Woodstock is a movie of small charms punctured now and then by big caricatures, typified by Imelda Staunton as Martin’s domineering, braying moose of a motel owner mother. Aside from Martin’s performance that recalls early Dustin Hoffmann and Richard Benjamin, there’s also especially good work by Eugene Levy (nicely dialed-down as a big landowner), Jonathan Groff as a charismatic concert organizer and Liev Schreiber as a refrigerator sized cross-dressing security guard, let alone a nifty cameo by Paul Dano as a hippy in a van whose offer of earthly delights sends Martin on a sublimely beautiful acid trip. So maybe Taking Woodstock doesn’t make the Grand Statement on the subject some critics hoped for. When Lee and cinematographer Frederick Elmes conjure up something as gorgeous as that long, astonishing tracking shot that takes Martin down a teeming road for his first magical glimpse of the festival, what more do you need? It’s like Candide meeting The Wizard of Oz. *** 1/2
Who's in it: Demetri Martin, Emile Hirsch, Liev Schreiber
What's it about: In the summer of 1969, the owner of a failing Catskills motel provides the permit and the land for the Woodstock rock festival to happen.
Peace and love: Based on a true story, this film by Oscar-winner Ang Lee ("Brokeback Mountain") looks back 40 years - and finds an unsung hero. He's Elliot Teichberg (Martin), whose parents run a dying motel. A would-be painter who sacrifices his own career to help them keep their motel afloat, Elliot also runs the local Chamber of Commerce - and steps in to save the day when nearby Wallkill cancels Woodstock's permit. As a million people converge on his little town, Elliot discovers things he's been hiding from himself - and finds a new sense of freedom among the hordes of young people who invade the tiny town of White Lake, NY. Lee captures the heady atmosphere as the festival suddenly comes to life in a matter of a couple of weeks - the seat-of-the-pants planning, the clash between conservative townfolk and the tribe of hippies. It's funny and touching: Martin is funny and touching as Elliot, grabbing for the kind of freedom these people take for granted and learning to liberate himself from the demands of his parents. Plus the music is great.
Long story short: Forty years later, this story still rocks.
This is the way we should remember Woodstock - a sea of people, a river of mud, a mountain of garbage and a whole lotta love.
And that sound echoing from off in the acid-warped distance? It's the music, man.
Ang Lee's "Taking Woodstock" is a coming-of-age comedy that roams the backstage and the back-story and sees that epic concert through rose-colored glasses. It's got every '60s cause - from bra burning to draft-card burning, environmentalism to gay liberation - and every '60s movie cliche: the 'Nam vet having flashbacks, stoned hippies, hippie-hating cops, parents learning the joys of hash brownies.
There's nothing like cliches for a warm wallow in nostalgia.
The director of "Brokeback Mountain" adapted Elliot Tiber's book recalling the event and shows us the concert experience through young Elliot's eyes. Elliot (Demetri Martin) was a young, newly-out gay artist just returned from the Stonewall Riot that launched gay liberation, struggling to save his parents' dump of a motel. But the "El Monaco International Resort & Casino," with its dirty rooms and tatty cabins, was in Bethel, N.Y. And when Woodstock concert promoters lost their planned venue just down the road, it was Elliot who thought to call them, who talked his neighbor Max Yasgur into renting out his dairy farm, all to make a little music and a little history.
Taking Woodstock is a movie of characters and context. It was the summer of Apollo 11. Bethel was a moribund village where Elliot ran a chamber of commerce with no real commerce. The culture was divided along a generation gap. That plays out in Elliot's own family, where his comically mean and cheap mom (Imelda Staunton, a riot) and long-suffering dad (Henry Goodman) resist this "hippie invasion" he has brought down on them.
Eugene Levy plays Yasgur as a trusting, tolerant soul, but one who is cagier than he came off in Michael Wadcleigh's famed Woodstock documentary. There's Vilma (Liev Schreiber, cool and hilarious in wig and high heels) the transvestite who runs security. Promoter Michael Lang (Jonathan Groff) is an idealized mellow fellow in the prettiest Jewfro in history, literally riding in on horseback to chill everybody out. And Dan Fogler of Fanboys heads an avante garde theater troupe that was there before there was a "Woodstock" and naked before any of the teeming masses who followed.
Even as Woodstock gets the mud and the mess it sugar-coats the drugs and the generational/cultural divide. Lee mixes film stocks and splits the screen, just like the famed documentary about the concert (a concert we never see in this film), and gives us a special-effects acid trip. He has so many players and so many interesting characters that it's surprising he's able to do a few of them justice. Even the standard-issue burned out veteran (Emile Hirsch) has a moment of grace.
That's the message of the film, too. It was just a moment. But up there on Yasgur's farm for one long weekend, it really was about peace and love ... and mud and overflowing toilets. Whatever the smelly, wet reality, the legend is what endures. Maybe that's as it should be.