Eugene Weekly : Movies : 9.3.09


A child of God discovers mud, great heights
by Jason Blair

TAKING WOODSTOCK: Directed by Ang Lee. Written by James Schamus. Cinematography, Eric Gautier. Music, Danny Elfman. Starring Demetri Martin, Henry Goodman, Imelda Staunton, Eugene Levy, Emile Hirsch, Paul Dano, Kelli Garner and Liev Schreiber. Focus Features, 2009. R. 110 minutes.

Kelli Garner, Demetri Martin and Paul Dano in Taking Woodstock

By most accounts, the Woodstock music festival suffered two casualties, both accidental, and two births, one an automobile delivery in traffic. These and other passages go unnoticed in Taking Woodstock, Ang Lee’s sweet but tidy film about life-and-death matters of another sort. Based upon the memoir by Elliot Tiber (then Teichberg), the film might have been called Nearby Woodstock, so peripheral is the festival to Elliot’s broadly depicted maturation. Elliot, who secures the permit which allows Woodstock to take place — he already had the paperwork for a chamber music concert — is adrift in the 1960s Borscht Belt, unable to assert himself or, as we learn more gradually, reveal himself as a young gay man. If that sounds like a provcative fringe through which to view the enormity of Woodstock, know that there’s very little controversy in Lee’s view of counterculture’s defining moment. Taking Woodstock is prim, if sometimes appropriately so, given how laden with cliché the Woodstock event has become. It is also evasive on several fronts.

At the outset of the film, Elliot (Demetri Martin) is a reluctant employee of El Monaco, the ramshackle motel his parents own in the Catskills hamlet of Bethel, New York. Elliot, played with sweet bemusement by Martin, endures the constant harassment of his mother Sonia (Imelda Staunton). Staunton, so understated in Vera Drake, is a mushroom cloud here, a loud and reactive materfamilias whose paranoia is at times overplayed. Elliot’s father Jack (Henry Goodman), scorched for 40 years by Sonia, can only suffer his wife in silence. In a sense, Goodman’s Jack is a stand-in for the town at large, which is presented as feeble and lacking any energy, in particular the youthful sort. Shattering the silence is Billy (Emile Hirsch), a troubled but apple-cheeked Vietnam vet who claims, between hallucinations, that “over in ’Nam, I’m normal.” The Earthlight Players, a radical theater troupe living in the El Monaco barn, add charisma and frequent bursts of nudity to the scene.

After reading about the cancellation of Woodstock in the nearby town of Wallkill, Elliot contacts promoter Mike Lang, who quickly descends from a helicopter to get the lay of land. Elliot connects Lang and his investors with Max Yasgur — a fact the actual Yasgur family has disputed — a prominent dairy farmer known for his chocolate milk. Once Yasgur agrees, both the venture and the film find their footing. El Monaco becomes the operations center for the festival; before you can say, “If you build it, they will come,” hordes of wide-eyed hippies arrive, as does an ex-Marine and current transvestite named Vilma (Liev Schreiber in an underwritten part). Until this point, Taking Woodstock can afford to assemble itself gradually, for the world now knows what Elliot could not: History was being made just a little down the road. The first song, when it comes, is heard not at Yasgur’s farm, but carried on the wind to the ears of Elliot and his father, who insists Elliot set out for the festival. 

Is there a payoff at this point? Yes and no. Loose but confidently so, Taking Woodstock never confronts directly the music, drugs and sex so pivotal to the event Elliot claims transformed his life. (One exception is a terrific LSD trip scene, replete with Elliot crying, “Where are my arms?”) By refusing to compete with the Woodstock legacy, in particular Mike Wadleigh’s Oscar-winning documentary, Lee has sacrificed the passion of his other films, most notably Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Brokeback Mountain. Wearing the tagline “It All Began in His Backyard,” Taking Woodstock promises more than it delivers, an outcome it arguably shares with Flower Power