Director: Ang Lee
Cast: Demetri Martin, Imelda Staunton, Henry Goodman, Emile Hirsch, Eugene Levy, Liev Schreiber, Jonathan Groff
MPAA Rating: (for graphic nudity, some sexual content, drug use and language)
Running Time: 1:50
Release Date: 8/28/09
Review by Mark Dujsik
Despite setting itself up as a behind-the-scenes, insider's look at the making of the Woodstock Festival, Taking Woodstock tells us nothing new about the 1969 event that defined a generation.
We all know that Woodstock didn't happen in Woodstock, New York, but instead on Max Yasgur's dairy farm in White Lake. We all know of the mass exodus to the site for three days of peace, love, and music. We all know what happened at the festival, thanks to Michael Wadleigh's fantastic documentary.
The first part of Taking Woodstock is about certain things we may not have known, and indeed, these elements of the preparation for the festival—seen through the eyes of a young man who, according to his own account, single-handedly saved the festival and guaranteed that Bethel, New York, will always be identified as the home of Woodstock—are involving. Once the festival is ready to go, though, the movie becomes a typical coming-of-age story, a clichéd awakening to all the things the '60s promised.
The center of the bildungsroman is Elliot Teichberg (Demetri Martin), later Tiber, who wrote the memoir (with Tom Monte) upon which the movie is based. Elliot is a prominent figure in the town of White Lake: president of the chamber of commerce, the head of a yearly music festival for the town. His parents Jake (Henry Goodman) and Sonia (Imelda Staunton) are entirely financially dependant on him to keep their El Monaco Motel afloat, although Elliot has dreams of becoming a paid interior designer.
Elliot uses his permit for the annual music festival to wrangle in Woodstock Ventures, who have been booted from a few communities, and ends up becoming the community liaison for the festival.
The establishing of the festival in White Lake serves as an eye-opening look behind the business venture that was the festival—a fascinating softening of the myth that is Woodstock. The founders of Woodstock Ventures, including cool customer Michael Lang (Jonathan Groff), swoop in on the town in a helicopter, seeking an appropriate site, talking finances, and looking at the entire enterprise from a very un-groovy perspective (building codes, community affairs, marketing, etc..). They come across very much like the Man.
The Teichbergs' motel becomes the official headquarters for the business end of the festival and the only official ticketing vendor, and Lang is quite happy to pay upfront in cash. Yasgur (Eugene Levy) is thrilled to be having the Hippies on his farm, but once he realizes how many people will be attending (and how much monetary potential there is) asks for a considerable sum more than the originally agreed to $5,000.
There's a bit of community uproar about the whole thing, with the threat of boycotting Yasgur's milk, and Elliot becomes the town pariah, with only his childhood friend Billy (Emile Hirsch), a Vietnam vet and the only peek into the darker side of the times apart from some quick news stories, to stand by him. In the end, though, the community is looking to make as much money off this festival as they can, too.
Once all of this has been settled, James Schamus' script veers away from the organizational side and focuses on Elliot's reaction to the festival and its effect on him. His dad is no longer the quiet recluse and starts to connect to the incoming tourists, lighting a seemingly long-dead fire. His mom is still just as concerned with finances, but with the potential for more money right there, she takes advantage of it. Of course, mom and dad eat a batch of pot brownies, too, and dance the night away in a scene that's become to familiar for its own good.
Elliot's problems run deeper: He's in the closet. While the offer of moving to San Francisco with a group of friends of tempting, his freedom means leaving his parents grasping for straws. His sister lives in the city, doing well with her husband, leaving Elliot as the backbone for the family—a responsibility he cannot easily shirk.
This is a breakthrough role for Martin, a comedian whose work I am entirely unfamiliar. His performance is subdued with hints of something more always bubbling just beneath the surface. It's in complete contrast to Staunton, who is solid as a caricature but has nothing else going on.
As opportunities arise, those bubbles of potential begin to emerge, helped on by a transvestite named Vilma (Liev Schreiber), who can intrinsically sense the inner workings of people, and a crush on one of the festival's techs.
How this emerges is disappointing. Elliot makes a trip to the festival and takes an acid trip, full of bright colors and wavy imagery, and everything that occurs to incite his awakening (e.g., money under the floorboards) feels like a copout for keeping the emotional, psychological, and social implications at bay. The festival itself is kept in the distance, but director Ang Lee hits upon lots of collected images we have of it, complete with the split-screen editing Wadleigh used in his film.
Ending with a sly, knowing wink to Altamont, which would follow less than four months after Woodstock and truly signal the end of what everyone said the '60s stood for, Taking Woodstock in turn reminds us of another great, true account of the era in the Maysles' Gimme Shelter. As hard as it tries to show us another angle of the festival, the movie says what's already been said countless times before.
Copyright © 2009 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.