The defining event of the sixties counterculture ideals of peace and love and communal harmony seems like an unusual subject for Ang Lee, the virtuoso of emotional repression and social suppression. This is the director who finds the chamber drama within every film, even the martial arts epic Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and the comic book superhero spectacle The Hulk. Woodstock, three days of peace and music, is the very epitome of letting loose and letting the freak flags fly, symbolically if not in fact.
Though it is “inspired by a true story” (as the film takes pains to remind us) and based on a memoir, Taking Woodstock is not a documentary, a docudrama, a rock ‘n’ comedy (like the previews suggest) or even a conventional narrative. It’s not even really about the concert. It’s about the culture around it: the conservative insularity of the rural upstate New York town of Bethel, the counterculture immigrants in their crazy clothes and impenetrable youthspeak who invaded for a weekend, the odd chemistry of corporate suits and hippie organizers who set up their offices in a rattletrap hotel court facility and the hang-loose crew in orbit around this tossed-together HQ.
At the center of it all, as both our unlikely hero and our wide-eyed point of view, is Elliot Teichberg (baby-faced comedian and The Daily Show regular Demetri Martin), a nice Jewish boy who has set his dreams and identity aside to help his parents rescue the family motel practically run into the ground by his acerbic skinflint mother (Imelda Staunton). She’s quick to recount the story of escaping the Cossacks and charge anti-Semitism when the bank talks foreclosure and Staunton plays the scene – and most of her scenes, for that matter – for all the ethnic humor the part allows, a dowdy matron harping, carping and hissing threats at the drop of a comment. Elliot tries to shrug it off but the steady stream of criticism and dismissive judgments is just more pressure to endure.
For all of his energy and optimism, Elliot is a man who has withdrawn from the world to help his parents and promote a hometown (he’s also the president of the Chamber of Commerce) that doesn’t want anything to change. When he reads of a major music festival that was just kicked out of nearby Wallkill, he sees a chance to do both. He’s got the permit and entrepreneurial spirit, but once he helps broker a deal for the rental of Max Yasgur’s farm, the event takes on a life of its own. Intentional or not, he’s brought to world to him and he’s intoxicated by it. Lee spends much of the film simply wandering through the swarm of activity with Elliot, dazed at the size and scope of it all and disillusioned by the hostility aimed at his family by the locals. There is, in fact, a very real streak of dormant anti-Semitism that bubbles as the festival takes root. While it’s not the necessarily townsfolk who deface the motels with hateful graffiti, it is one of his own neighbors who suggests they just “run the Jews out of town.” This crazy hippie crowd looks more attractive all the time.
The event is most assuredly a magnet for extreme characters but Ang Lee doesn’t frontload the eccentricities. Elliot’s high school buddy Billy (Emile Hirsch) is a Vietnam vet who turns his flashbacks into a kind of theater when it suits him, but his pain and torment is very real. There is no caricature in Eugene Levy’s incarnation of Max Yasgur, an easy-going farmer who turns out to be both a savvy businessman and a free thinking fellow who appreciates the energy the festival brings to town. And Liev Schrieber cuts a striking figure as Vilma, a transvestite Korean war vet with a gun in his garter and a gruff rumble under his flouncy wig, but they are just accessories to an engaging and accepting character and Schrieber doesn’t play up the comic angles. “I know who I am, and that makes it so much easier for everybody else,” he says to Elliot, as much a life lesson as an explanation.
Ang Lee has never made a film this loose and rambling. The concert was in some ways a disaster of inadequate planning and overwhelming crowds and it was a financial loss for the organizers. But the film – without ever even making it to the concert itself – makes the case that the crowds did indeed make it a weekend of peace and music, even if they has to provide their own soundtrack. Meanwhile, there’s all the crowds and lines, the skinnydippers, the rain, the mud and the drugs. The split screens channel the spirit of the Woodstock film. The epic traffic jam that turns the highway to Max Yasgur’s farm into a parking lot quotes Jean-Luc Godard’s “Weekend” and the transforms it from the breakdown of society to the formation of a temporary new utopian rest stop where no one seems upset or angry. Even the traffic cop is caught up in the love. “Taking Woodstock” is awash in good vibes, less a story than lovingly idealized experience.
This is surely the calmest and warmest portrait of chaos I’ve seen on screen and Elliot, as accommodating and passive as he is, drinks it in like a parched man at an oasis. Or at least that’s what we’re supposed to see. Demetri Martin is thoroughly agreeable and a gentle and amiable fellow but far too inert to center the film. He never manages to show us the fire a man desperate to express his true self and leaves Elliot a warm but vague sketch in the center of a vivid mural. We see more of his interior life in reflection through Elliot’s father, Jake, beautifully played by Henry Goodman. The quiet, submissive husband with a sad sack expression is roused to life by the activity and energy and youthful excitement around him and he encourages Elliot to do the same. He doesn’t say much, but behind those eyes we see an inkling that he understands Elliot.
Taking Woodstock is Elliot’s coming out, not just as a young gay man in a straightjacket of conformity, but as a person who has sacrificed his identity to the altar of assumed responsibility and respectability. He may never actually make it to the show itself, but he takes in Woodstock through the people, the culture, the generosity of spirit that takes over his world. With his eyes opened to the possibilities, he just can’t close them again. After living other people’s lives, it’s time to live his own.
Directed by Ang Lee; screenplay by James Schamus, adapted from the book by Elliot Tiber and Tom Monte.