Movie Review: Taking Woodstock (8/28/09)

Poster: Taking Woodstock

Taking Woodstock

Directed by Ang Lee
Screenplay by James Schamus

Elliot Teichberg – Demetri Martin
Devon – Dan Fogler
Jake Teichberg – Henry Goodman
Michael Lang – Jonathan Groff
Max Yasgur – Eugene Levy

CLR Rating: 3.5/5 stars

Still: Taking Woodstock

An Iconic Event Gets a Human Face

Ang Lee’s comedy-drama Taking Woodstock will probably only draw a certain niche market, but its appeal is universal. It’s set during one of America’s most defining eras: in 1969, the Vietnam war was raging overseas and battle-scarred soldiers were coming home to an increasingly intolerant America. Meanwhile, men were walking on the moon and peaceful protests in D.C. were forcefully disbanded by the police. America was a war zone in and of itself. Taking Woodstock is an affectionate look at the tentative, grudging merge of diverse cultural ideals: druggy, flower-power culture and agriculture, so to speak. The film tells the true story of how the Woodstock music festival came to take place on Yasgur’s farm in upstate New York, the people involved, and the hippie infestation that brought acceptance to a largely Jewish, conservative region of the country.

Lee’s recent work has been hit-or-miss. Brokeback Mountain made a true movie star of the late actor Heath Ledger (and attracted all sorts of criticism from the same people who voted for Proposition 8), but Hulk drew sneers and jeers from comic fans across the world. Though his oeuvre includes everything from melodrama to martial arts, Lee’s most endearing projects are intimate, sensible, plausible stories about people who might as well be your parents, your friends, or your schoolteacher. Taking Woodstock is based firmly in reality, but the film isn’t about one character’s journey: it’s a coming-of-age story about America.


Filmmakers have chosen to focus on this particular era of American history many, many times, and Taking Woodstock doesn’t bring any new perspective to the subject matter. Demetri Martin’s Elliot Teichberg veritably stumbles through the film; though he sets up the deal with Woodstock’s promoters, he does it only to keep his parents’ rundown El Monaco Motel from foreclosure. Like Forrest Gump, Teichberg accidentally finds himself in a fantastical situation. Imelda Staunton plays Elliot’s mother Sonia, a grouchy, downtrodden woman whose greed and grudges make her impossible to like. Staunton is undoubtedly an incredible actress but her role, like Martin’s, left little room for development. Notable screen time went to Liev Schreiber, playing a cross-dresser with a pistol who performs security detail at the El Monaco, and Emile Hirsch’s Billy, a freaked-out, war-scarred Vietnam vet whose flashbacks provide surprising comic relief.

Teichberg returns to his parents’ farm from Greenwich Village to help them keep their motel from going under. The plot drags in the beginning of the film, but succeeds in making the viewer feel the way the characters must. In White Lake, New York, things move slowly. Once the game is afoot, though, the pace picks up. Lee’s penchant for split-screen cinematography actually makes sense here: it was a technique common in film and TV in the 1960s and 70s. Overlapping action and audio convey a sense of chaos—so much happened at once during the planning and execution of Woodstock, and the film plays with that idea.

This is the 40th anniversary of Woodstock, but aside from that, the film’s timing is perfect. In the current economic climate, with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan plaguing the collective American psyche, and with the first African-American President in office, the parallels between 1969 and 2009 are hard to miss. Lee is unquestionably a visceral, visually motivated director, and the differences in color saturation from the beginning of the film to the end conjure The Wizard of Oz. When Teichberg finds himself taking acid in a van with two traveling hippies, the colors and patterns take over the screen, offering the audience a look into a drug trip like none other. When Sonia and her husband Jake eat hash brownies, they dance in the rain with Elliot—a sweet scene in which age and cultural boundaries fall by the wayside.

Though the movie is a simplistic story about a lot of people gathering in one place (and a lot of big-name actors assembling in one film), it’s a smart, endearing tale whose timing is impeccable. Near the end of the film, Woodstock promoter Michael Lang (Jonathan Groff) approaches Elliot on a horse. As the two watch festival attendees clean up their trash and wade through the mud, Elliot asks, “What now?” Lang, a mysterious hippie type, replies, “Well, everybody’s gotta chase the money now.” Though this actually refers to the aftermath of the festival, it seems to be the film’s true message: maybe Americans should take a deep breath and look around once in awhile. The idea seems to be that, well, maybe we’d realize things can in fact be, as Lang says, “beautiful, man, beautiful.”

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