Taking Woodstock

a film by Ang Lee

Perhaps Ang Lee’s new film is quite the idealized look at its Woodstock subject. A dream of what it was instead of what it really was. An almost too-perfect look back at the seminal rock concert event of forty years ago. And perhaps too, Lee’s film is riddled with cliched caricatures. Emile Hirsch’s flash-backing Vietnam vet. Imelda Staunton’s Ukrainian battalion of a mother. The tough-as-nails ex-marine drag queen played with a nudge and a smirk by Liev Schreiber. The gaggle of flower children actors living in the barn and all those acid-eating hippies a half a million strong. But none of these flaws, mostly of the superficial variety, manage to change the fact that Taking Woodstock is a fun movie to watch.

Perhaps Lee’s choice of far-off idealization was a conscious choice. After all, this is not the story of Woodstock itself (for that go and rent the 1970 documentary on the concert – it is a well worth choice) but more the story of the periphery of the event. Taking Woodstock is less about the concert (we never actually see any of the performers and that may be a blessing in disguise as I dread the idea of someone 'playing' Hendrix or Joplin or the Dead as if this were an Oscar hopeful biopic) and more about those who surround it. To partake of a line from the film, Taking Woodstock is a film about those who surround that center of the universe that was Woodstock itself.

What Lee’s film is, is something a bit more intimate than a concert populated by nearly half a million stoned flower children, a couple hundred helicopter-riding organizers and thirty-some musical acts. What Lee’s film is, is the story of Elliot Teichberg, played with a surprising candor by stand-up comic Demetri Martin (having only a couple of bit parts under his acting belt) and his inadvertent importance in the making of a milestone in music history. Taking Woodstock shows how a young man trying desperately to save his parents run-down, out-of-the-way motel from sure foreclosure, manages, through sheer happenstance and maybe a bit of fortuitous will power, to become the catalyst for the concert event of all-time.

After making two openly gay films, the early Taiwanese rom-com The Wedding Banquet and the stoically tragic Brokeback Mountain (not to mention the homoerotic tension in Lee’s version of Hulk!) it is somewhat surprising to see Lee downplay the homosexuality of his lead protagonist. Though this choice, along with the quite matter-of-factly portrayal of Schreiber’s drag queen (he never even makes an attempt to act lady like) may be a conscious effort on the filmmaker’s behalf to make the film not about sexuality but about how it doesn’t matter what your sexual preference is. An ideal that goes along with the whole idea of what Woodstock was and what the Woodstock generation stands for.

Sure the story may be full of obvious stereotypes and dumbed down cliches, and this may not be Lee at his bravest (leave that for Brokeback Mountain and The Ice Storm) but that shouldn’t stop this film in its tracks as it would with many other movies. Lee’s use of split screen to evoke Michael Wadleigh’s original documentary style as well as his creatively placing amongst the half a million strong moments that seem like they are actually lifted straight out of that aforementioned doc works as an artistic flair that gives the whole shebang a sense of nostalgic awe. His use of long tracking shots (the most memorable being the motorcycle ride through the throngs that evokes the traffic jam shot from Godard’s Weekend) adds to that awe as well. What Lee delivers here is something more akin to what those aforementioned half a million concertgoers probably felt while muddily occupying themselves with three days of peace and music. A sense of bewildered awe.

All in all, the film works (to an extent) not only in spite of its flaws, but also sometimes because of them. Aside from the surprising turn by Martin, Eugene Levy as the iconic Max Yasgur (in the film's most honest, sincere performance) and Schreiber as the drag head of peripheral security (coming right off playing the feral Sabretooth in Wolverine – from X-Man to ex-man!?) both the film’s most ludicrous and most endearing caricature is the smiling horseback-riding knight in suede vest organizer Michael Lang, played with a preening aplomb by Jonathan Groff as if he were portraying a mythical hero (which to some he may very well be!). Perhaps then the whole trip has been an attempt at a certain kind of mythology. Joni Mitchell wrote that we are stardust, we are golden, and we’ve got to get ourselves, back to the garden. This may not be the actual garden, or even a realistic facsimile of the garden, but this is Lee’s mythology of how it all came to be. Idealized warts and all. [08/30/09]