TAKING WOODSTOCK (Ang Lee)
Ang Lee continues to surprise me. After delving into an extraordinary love story that breaks all the rules in BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, and channelling intrigue and an unexpected romance in LUST CAUTION, he dishes up the famous Woodstock Arts and Music Festival by going behind the scenes as if an insider, telling us as if firsthand the colourful drama behind the creation of one of the highly successful and biggest concerts that went on for three days.
Told from the perspective of real-life character Elliot Tiber (played by Demetri Martin), the incidental hero that made Woodstock happen, TAKING WOODSTOCK plays out as a light small-town tale in the beginning, then develops into the absurd, until it culminates in the down and dirty, and oftentimes liberating Woodstock experience.
TAKING WOODSTOCK captures much of the hysteria, the raunchiness and the psychedelic phenomena of a generation that will forever mark American culture. Everything’s in there: nudists, weed, acid, antiwar rallies, culture clashes, avant garde theatre troupe, everyone feeling good about their bodies—Ang Lee and screenwriter James Schamus manage to recreate it all out. The outcome is an experience too good to be true. Everything feels real.
The film does not focus on the concert itself; you won’t see actors playing Janis Joplin, or Hendrix for that matter. What TAKING WOODSTOCK is more concerned with are the little, vague vignettes of each of the audience who were there at White Lake, New York mirrored through the stories of the locals, and especially Elliot’s. Woodstock did wonders for Elliot’s small town, especially in reviving the stagnant tourism industry. That swarm of hippies revolutionized not only American culture, but White Lake as well, and as the film presents, it also helped resolve some of Elliot’s family conflicts.
Henry Goodman and Imelda Staunton play Elliot’s parents, and they play the part pretty well— with Goodman the tolerating but outrageous dad and Staunton the uptight mom. You should see that scene where a couple of goons went to stiff them, ensuing in a brawl. In fact, almost everyone in the film is in a state of riot, and if that weren’t enough, you should see Liev Schreiber in drag.
Eugene Levy (of American Pie fame) plays Max, who owns that huge sprawling piece of land where Woodstock took place. I say every film that has Levy on it is a yes for me. Levy just brightens the material with his charm and his simplicity, and he doesn’t seem to exert any real effort at all.
Martin himself is pretty convincing. Somewhere in the film he’s a mix between determined and lost, and during that psychedelic scene including a hippie couple in a van Elliot eventually let it all out and became in touch with his surroundings.
I made mention earlier about the avant garde theatre troupe— yes they are real. They are called the “Earthlight Players” and if you think you’ve already seen a theatre performance, wait until you’ve seen what they did to Anton Chekhov and to a helicopter touching down.
TAKING WOODSTOCK, to finish has redefined the meaning of a “feel-good” film.