MOVIE REVIEW- Groovy movie: <i>Taking Woodstock </i>recalls rock of ages
Ang Lee switches gears again with a comedy about Elliot Teichberg (later shortened to Tiber), without whom the Woodstock festival might never have happened.
At least that's Elliot's story– the movie's based on his memoir; but Woodstock is like the ‘70s: if you remember it, you weren't there.
Of course everyone of a certain age was at Woodstock. If you'd been alive roughly 2,000 years ago you'd probably claim to have witnessed the Sermon on the Mount. And Jesus, from what the Bible tells us, didn't even have an opening act!
In 1969, another group of pilgrims gathered outdoors to hear a message of peace and love, a message set to music this time. The meek didn't inherit the earth there. They rented it from a local dairy farmer, Max Yasgur (Eugene Levy), after a nearby town, Wallkill revoked their permit weeks before the festival.
That much is history. The missing link that Taking Woodstock supplies is how Elliot (Demetri Martin) made the hookup between festival organizer Michael Lang (Jonathan Groff) and Yasgur as a way of drumming up business for his parents' (Imelda Staunton, Henry Goodman) failing El Monaco motel.
You should know going in that Taking Woodstock is strictly a behind-the-scenes story, and it's not about the musicians. The concert begins when the movie's two-thirds over, and then it's heard only in the distant background. Elliot never quite makes it to the concert, and neither do we. Watch Michael Wadleigh's documentary again if that's what you want to see, but you'll marvel at the way Lee has recreated so many memorable images from that film and other records of the actual event.
Taking Woodstock is a comedy, though not without its serious elements. Elliot leaves his friends and his interior design business behind in Manhattan when the bank threatens to foreclose on the family motel. He's been part-timing there anyway, serving as president of the Bethel Chamber of Commerce and putting on an annual "music and art festival" consisting of playing records on the lawn and trying to sell his own paintings. This year, he's already turned the barn over to an avant-garde theater troupe to add another component.
Having a permit for his festival in hand, Elliot calls Lang when he reads about Wallkill pulling the plug. The Teichbergs' field is too small, but Yasgur's is big enough. Max makes a deal, then reneges on it when he realizes the event will be bigger than he thought. With a calmness beyond Zen, Lang helps his money men work it out.
It becomes bigger than anyone thought, or dreamed. With our foreknowledge of what's to come, we can enjoy watching the festival grow and laugh at such famous last words as, "It's August. It's not gonna rain." But knowing what will follow also diminishes the sweet optimism of the movie's ending.
Staunton's over-the-top portrayal of a Jewish mother ("I walked here all the way from Minsk, Russia...with nothing but cold potatoes in my pocket") will draw criticism in some quarters, award nominations in others.
Another potential award contender is Emile Hirsch, who follows Into the Wild and Milk with the role of Billy, Elliot's old friend who returns from Vietnam thoroughly f'ed up. The scene where he finally has a flashback to school instead of war brought tears to my eyes.
A sudden influx of money into the community attracts mobsters from organized crime (easily and hilariously repelled) and brings out anti-Semitism in the locals, who see Jews profiting the most.
Since Mr. Teichberg bonds with Vilma (Liev Schreiber), the macho transvestite Elliot hires as the family's personal security guard, you might assume he knows and accepts what she is; but you might be wrong. A few weeks after the Stonewall riots in Greenwich Village, sexual orientation and gender identity weren't the first things most "normal" people thought about.
It's not clear whether Elliot is "out" to his parents. After his first public display of affection with a man, he looks nervously to see if his father has seen, but why else would his mother not nag him about giving her grandchildren?
Looking back at the utopian peak of "flower power" will be nostalgic for some while appearing as mythical as Camelot to later generations. Just remember, if you were at Woodstock it doesn't make you cool today– it makes you old!
Taking Woodstock rates two fingers up– in the form of a peace sign. It's groovy, man.