Taking Woodstock (2009)

Director: Ang Lee

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By Roderick Heath

Ang Lee’s Cannes-selected comic epic was savaged upon release for replicating plentiful clichés of the hippie era. Whilst I can’t really argue with the fact that it does revel in a kind of theme-park aesthetic of ’60s anarchy whilst soft-pedaling the social friction, antiwar protests, and mood of mild terror that always defined the counterculture era, Lee’s film was, I feel, much mistreated and its finer elements ignored. I’m not sure if 2009 produced a movie both as enjoyable and as cinematically loquacious as Taking Woodstock. It possesses, moreover, a celebratory warmth that I’ve so badly missed from Lee’s breakthrough film of 1992, The Wedding Banquet, with which it shares many crucial characteristics. Lee’s intervening films, like The Ice Storm (1997) and Brokeback Mountain, and even his fine but curiously po-faced tribute to wu xia, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2001), often felt like the work of trying to play the grown-up a touch too studiously. His impressive 2006 film Lust, Caution was both highly uneven and deeply moving, and its unchecked aggression suggested a release and new direction for Lee.

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Taking Woodstock is, first and foremost, a comedy spun from a memoir by Eliot Tiber, who attended the fabled festival. Eliot and his hard-bitten Russian-Jewish parents Jake and Sonia Teichberg (Henry Goodman and Imelda Staunton) run a crummy, barely surviving motel. Eliot, a failing interior decorator who’s been ripped off by his former (probably mafia) employees, has been sinking most of his money into keeping the motel afloat. He’s also gotten himself made president of the local chamber of commerce, which allows him to sign off on his own small cultural festivals to try to increase traffic to the locale.

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He gets a brainwave when he reads about the proposed music festival being kicked out of Woodstock proper and another nearby town. He calls up the supernaturally laidback festival organiser Michael Lang (Jonathan Groff) and offers Lang the use of his own festival permit. Lang and his cohort of moneymen, corporate hangers-on, and suited lawyers immediately fly in by helicopter. They reject Eliot’s first proposal—to set up in the swamp behind the motel—but soon he hits on a perfect location: the dairy farm of his local acquaintance Max Yasgur (Eugene Levy). In compensation, the festival organisers make the motel their base of operations, a move that makes the Teichbergs not only immediately solvent, but actually quite rich.

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As well as saving his family from economic ruin, the subsequent explosion of freak power and communal effort helps Eliot overcome his inability to express his homosexuality to the world, and reveals telling details about his own character and those of his parents that both draw them closer and then push them apart. Around them swirls a gallery of types, like Eliot’s boyhood friend Billy (Emile Hirsch) who’s recovering from his hitch in ’Nam; Lang’s philosophical girlfriend Carol (Christina Kirk); Reverend Don (Richard Thomas), a hip priest handling the festival’s community outreach; Paul (Darren Pettie), a hunky builder whose knowledge of Judy Garland hints at hidden passions; an out-and-proud, pistol-packing, ex-marine Muscle Mary called Vilma (Liev Schreiber), who becomes the Teichbergs’ guardian angel after some goodfellas come knocking; and the two beatific hippies (Paul Dano and Kelli Garner) who guide Eliot on his first acid trip. Although he toys with pat exemplars, James Schamus’ script manages to delineate them all with intelligent eccentricity, aided by the actors, noting with some smartness the process of the outsiders of the world inverting the importance of things for a brief window in time, everyone from the full-on fairies to laidback dairy farmers who have never gotten along with their waspish neighbours determined to realise a moment of pure joy.

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And, indeed, Taking Woodstock manages to conjure a rare sense of communal celebration. If Groff’s Lang seems a touch more saintly than the faintly asocial, willfully oblivious creature glimpsed in Michael Wadleigh’s documentary Woodstock, Eugene Levy’s sharply inhabited Yasgur reveals a man both idealistic in nature and firmly pragmatic in wit. It’s pretty hard not to laugh at the more obvious humour, as when the Teichbergs chase off two wiseguys to the hoots and cheers of the hippies and their son’s congratulations: “Dad, Mom, you’re superheroes!” Then there’s the Earthlight Players, who live, or more accurately, are corralled in the barn by the Teichbergs, yearning for food; when the time comes for them to perform at one of Reverend Don’s outreach gigs, they strip down and berate a local audience, inspiring Billy to gleefully join them. Lee recreates the sights and sounds with such fidelity he can seamlessly integrate shots from Wadleigh’s Woodstock and what’s what can scarcely be discerned.

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The feel for time and place is exact—the hairy DIY aesthetic of it all backed up by wads of mysteriously plentiful cash, the feeling of energy welling from the organisers and the people who flock to make the scene. An epic tracking shot, following Eliot riding with a motorcycle cop through the great hippie exodus, is both an effective restaging of an iconic moment and a tribute by way of rebuke to the similarly anarchic, but apocalyptic traffic jam of Godard’s Week-End: the world set in chaos can be beautiful, Lee’s vision affirms. Later, when Eliot, doped to the gills on LSD, wanders the fringes of the festival, the sea of people transforming into a vortex of energy in a brilliantly executed visual orgasm. Lee avoids making too much of the on-stage malarkey that was the focus of Wadleigh’s film, with its worshipful visions of seraphim rock stars (Eliot never gets to actually see the concert), and even disdains leaning too much on the familiar soundtrack of the period. The most crucial song in the film is one by Love, the best American band of the era not to play at Woodstock, which is played by the hippie couple in their van as they trip.

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Perhaps the best quality of Lee’s film is the way it tries to elucidate with some genuine feeling the animating idea of the counterculture, that aspect well summarised by ’s Guido Anselmi as the desire to cut away “what is dead in ourselves,” as well as exploring the limitations of such curatives. It’s most obviously portrayed in Billy’s shaking off the terrors of his Vietnam tour by recalling that the festival is taking place on the very hill where he celebrated a momentous football victory in high school and joining with Eliot in mud-sliding. But the theme is most interestingly portrayed in terms of the disconnect between Eliot’s roots and family and the new life sprouting around him and beckoning to him where Taking Woodstock is most substantial.

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The ghosts of Old World persecution and the grind of surviving a drab existence still linger, not to be entirely dispelled from the heart even when fate presents wonders. When Vilma serves the Teichbergs some hash brownies, they dance in giddy ecstasy. It’s a cliché, but one with an interesting pay-off: Eliot finds the next morning that in a druggy stupor, his mother has uncovered her savings, which she has neurotically squirreled away over the years whilst allowing her business to decay. Here the film notes with fascinating incision and lack of sentiment the potential for rebirth and also the limitations of personality to transcend its defining anxieties, as Mrs Teichberg is motivated by a very real fear and paranoia that lurks behind her amusingly gruff shtetl manners. Even when she’s made to act as broad as the Mississippi (“No schtupping in the bushes!”), Staunton still deserves a lot of admiration for the bodily force and conviction with which she inhabits the part.

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Balancing this half of the family dynamic is a burgeoning father-son relationship, mediated through a coming-out on both men’s part—one sexual, the other emotional—that clearly evokes the conclusion of The Wedding Banquet. TV comic Martin is good, if unremarkable, in his role, and Goodman is quite marvelous as the wearied patriarch who finds himself one of the freaks and loves it, discovering a perfect pal in Vilma and congratulating his son on restoring his sense of life. Taking Woodstock’s generally amusing, but still pointed view of reactionary protests that fail to keep a lid on the event actually says something of contemporary relevance, particularly in stressing gay liberation as a major aspect of the scene. There’s a particularly delightful moment when Eliot is bewilderedly beset by lusty hippie chicks, and then gathered up in a full-blooded smooch by Paul, to their roars of delight in a moment of collapsing barriers.
Lee reminds us that the resentful, narrowing outlook of the Moral Majority was based chiefly in an offended sense of entitlement to dominance of discourse. Taking Woodstock makes an effective reminder that no matter what its multifarious modern mutations, the ideals of personal liberation and alt-culture resistance still have their roots firmly planted in this era. Although Lee’s style is still cool and balanced, it hasn’t been anything like this much fun to watch one of his films since Sense and Sensibility, and even if it’s no earth-shaking work of originality, it is a scene worth making. And scenes worth making don’t hit movie screens so often. l

  • shane spoke:
    29th/01/2010 to 9:08 am

    This is now on my must see quickly list. Thanks for answering questions I didn’t think to ask, Rod. I’m glad to read someone who takes our generation with the understanding and forgiveness you apparently have.

  • Rod spoke:
    29th/01/2010 to 9:42 am

    Forgiveness? Everyone just does their best, Shane.

  • J.D. spoke:
    29th/01/2010 to 11:12 am

    What a passionate, well-written defense of this film! I had a sneaking suspicion that there was a decent film lurking under all the mountains of negative press that was unceremoniously heaped on this film when it came out and I’m glad that your review only confirms this. I’ve been a fan of Lee’s film for some time and admire his willingness to dabble in so many different genres. Even his failures have something interesting going on in them.
    I will definitely have to check this film out based on your review. Thanks!

  • Rod spoke:
    29th/01/2010 to 7:48 pm

    Hope you like it, JD. Whatever one says about Lee, he’s a major contemporary filmmaker and his work deserves respect.

  • Whitney spoke:
    29th/01/2010 to 10:47 pm

    I didn’t like the film as a whole, but I was struck with how Lee handled sexual identities in the film. No one bats an eye at Eliot’s homosexuality. It just is. There are very few films with gay characters that don’t make being gay the characters entire identity.

  • Rod spoke:
    29th/01/2010 to 10:57 pm

    Lee is very smart with such themes, yes.
    Can’t agree at all with you otherwise. I can’t see what there isn’t to like about it.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    31st/01/2010 to 7:40 pm

    I did not like this cardboard film at all, and I was aghast at the fact that it didn’t employ the music that could have lifted it and accentuated one’s emotional connection to it. I love Lee, and am a HUGE fan of both BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN and THE ICE STORM, but this one seemed forced and reliant on some dysfunctional humor, never remotely getting to this culture-defining event.
    Still, yet again I salute you for an exceedingly excellent, well-written and exhaustive piece, and as a defense of sorts, it’s mighty impressive.

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