Taking Woodstock

(2009) ** 1/2 R
121 min. Focus Features. Director: Ang Lee. Cast: Demetri Martin, Dan Fogler, Henry Goodman, Eugene Levy, Jeffrey Dean Morgan.

/content/films/3551/1.jpgBackstage at Woodstock, as rain and wayward wires threaten to electrocute the musicians, concert organizer Tisha (Mamie Gummer) muses about the downer side of the complicated gathering: "Everyone with their little perspective. It's what keeps the love out." With their film Taking Woodstock, the longstanding team of director Ang Lee and screenwriter James Schamus try not to limit their perspectives. The multifaceted title of the film (taken from Elliot Tiber's memoir, co-written by Tom Monte) suggests that, regardless of any actual substances ingested, the festival itself was a kind of mind-opening drug to be dropped, one that gave each concertgoer a unique experience of the event. Though the film mostly focuses on Tiber's perspective (back when he still called himself Elliot Teichberg), Lee and Schamus rotate their prism to consider other sides: all but the concert stage, which the filmmakers wittily imply was the least personal—and therefore least important—part of the happening.

On the 40th anniversary of the festival, Taking Woodstock streamlines the story of how the event wound up in Bethel, New York. Dimitri Martin plays Teichberg, a painter and interior designer who feels beholden to work for his parents at their Catskills motel, the El Monaco (despite his sister's exhortation "Stop throwing your life away up there"). Since he’s also the youngest president in the history of the Bethel Chamber of Commerce, he’s in a position to attract the Woodstock festival to his town and, ultimately, the nearby farm of good ol’ Max Yasgur (Eugene Levy, who pegs Yasgur as the shrewdest square in town). "Famous last words" come from Yasgur when he offers, "You'll clean up after yourselves, I'm hoping."

Quickly descending on Bethel are suits and hippies, as well as someone in between: organizer Michael Lang (well played by Jonathan Groff as a sly slickster in hippie's clothing). Teichberg "wins" the festival, "taking" it for Bethel, and the hippie invasion and subsequent occupation lend the title another "make love and war" meaning: Schamus has the organizers arrive in a helicopter (which they didn't), and later we see the festival's injured being loaded by stretcher into an outbound copter. Meanwhile, the Students for a Democratic Society are on the anti-war march, while others including the United Feminist Front take the opportunity to trumpet causes. By the end, the muddied Yasgur's Farm looks like a WWI battlefield, from which vantage Lang rides a pale horse and sees—ominously, in hindsight—a concert "more beautiful than this one" to feature the Rolling Stones. Woodstock may, as in one observer's words, be "about commerce" and other "little perspectives," but there's passing purity to be found, too, among sincere peaceniks trying to "hold the love in" as long as it will last (as Elliot learns, the drugs help to keep the high alive).

Taking Woodstock is largely about Teichberg learning to cut loose and enjoy himself, bringing his homosexuality home to roost, and coming to terms with his Russian Jewish immigrant parents Jake (Henry Goodman) and Sonia (Imelda Staunton). The festival will stir up the family dynamic, with the infusion of youth revitalizing Jake and Sonia even as Elliot resists seeing them at their best, disbelieving they are capable of evolved behavior. Staunton's riotous infusion of energy proves indispensible to the film even as it skirts worryingly around the stereotype of the Jewish mother, tough-loving (she habitually calls Elliot "yutz" and "schnook") and money-grubbing, a quality explained if not quite excused by her ever-ready tales of desperation in escaping the pogroms.

Teichberg has spent tantalizing time in bohemian Greenwich Village, where the Stonewall riots are recent news, and the remembered excitement of New York compounds his frustration at having to manage the family business—with its mortgage over $5000 in arrears—and compensate for his cultural losses by hosting a starving theater troupe (the Earthlight Players) on the family property and throwing an annual music festival where he plays records since he can't attract any artists. Lee encapsulates this characterization in a brief scene showing Teichberg sitting behind the motel counter, surrounded by hutches stuffed with paperwork, as on the phone he sadly declines the invitation of a gay friend moving from New York to San Francisco.

When he seizes the day and becomes the local community liaison for Woodstock Ventures, Teichberg buys himself dubious situations (payment in paper bags filled with cash), local hostility (virulent anti-Semitism and fear of hippies high on drugs and raping cattle), and all manner of personal challenges to put him on the defensive ("Me and grass—you don't want to know"; "Me and public speaking—I can guarantee you, not my strong suit"). Also in Elliot’s orbit are Billy (Emile Hirsch), a Vietnam vet fending off flashbacks and Vilma (a droll Liev Schreiber), an ex-Marine sergeant in a wig and dress, who Elliot offers a security job. The remarkably secure Vilma provides a constant, shaming reminder of Elliot's failure to come out. "I know what I am," Vilma says. "That does make it easier for everyone else. Doesn't it?" When Elliot at last hitches a ride down the road to the concert (in a bravura single-shot recreating imagery from the 1970 documentary Woodstock), he accepts an invitation to liberation from a pair (Paul Dano and Kelli Garner) in a VW bus, where acid and open minds and bodies reveal shifting mandalas.

The film’s scale of recreation impresses, in production design, costumes (and the absence thereof: the nudity is accurately plentiful), varied film stocks, and split screen (a matter of personal style for Lee and an obligatory nod to Woodstock). Stolen moments of grace waft in and out, like a monologue in which Hirsch banishes his flashbacks and lets in a happy memory of a favorite hill. Still, the film's focus winds up being diffuse to a fault, and the film's farcial elements are flaccid. Some characters disappear (including Yasgur and Jeffrey Dean Morgan's skeptical local), while others remain present but palpably underdeveloped (Vilma, Billy, Tisha), and the Earthlight Players prove to be a superficial, dead-end narrative detail. On balance, though, Taking Woodstock—like Teichberg—takes after its immigrant American father, evincing a quiet humility in offering its rambling "little perspective" of an emblematic happening that was almost everything it was cracked up to be.

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