It takes a really wonderful movie to make me care about Woodstock or the hippie ’60s in general, and Ang Lee’s rich, funny, beautifully-realized film Taking Woodstock is “some kind of wonderful.”
Don’t expect a recreation of the famous concert complete with Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin doppelgangers — Lee is more interested in showing how the iconic event affected the people in the town where it took place. Taking Woodstock is a magical trip back to the summer of 1969, with a lot to interest the GLBT community.
Told through the eyes of Elliot Tiber (Demetri Martin), a young gay man whose parents own a run-down motel in the Catskills, Taking Woodstock is his personal coming-of-age story.
Elliot is enjoying his newfound freedom working as an interior designer in Greenwich Village immediately following the Stonewall riots. He has to pack it all in, however, when he learns that the bank is about to foreclose on the dumpy El Monaco Motel (and Conference Center) owned by his stern parents (Henry Goodman and Imelda Staunton).
He returns home and sets about trying to come up with the money needed to save his parents’ only possession. By chance, he reads how neighboring Wallkill, NY pulled the permit on the Woodstock festival, Elliot offers up his hospitality, and along with the help of neighbor Max Yasgur (Eugene Levy) and his 600-acre dairy farm, Woodstock was born.
No one is ready for the madness and magic that descend on the little town, least of all Elliot and his parents. Ultimately, a half a million people show up for “three days of peace and music in White Lake.”
When a violent mobster shows up threatening the Teichbergs, a burly cross-dressing ex-Marine named Vilma (Liev Schreiber in a fierce performance and a Loretta Swit wig) steps in to provide security.
Nothing and everything happens as the concert unfolds, and Lee is a master at weaving subtle overlapping scenes together into a tie-dyed tapestry that even makes me nostalgic for the time. This people-power is a far cry from the sad town hall “protests” launched by corporate greed and right-wing paranoia.
The performances are uniformly superb, including Spring Awakening star Jonathan Groff as promoter Michael Lang, Schreiber and especially Staunton, who plays an utterly unsympathetic shrew you still can’t stop watching. You may not like her, but you understand her. Martin is a great choice for the often flummoxed Elliot, who experiences more life in three days than he’s seen his whole life in little Bethel, NY.
Ang Lee has created a psychedelic love letter to an era we really ought to revisit as a society. Beyond the drugs, sex and rock and roll, Taking Woodstock works for me as a rallying cry to take back our country from small-minded bigotry and the fear-mongering people who are trying to keep us down in the name of “traditional family values.”
UPDATE: Taking Woodstock is now available on DVD and Blu-rayfrom Amazon.com.
Review by Neil Cohen, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Phoenix's Echo Magazine.