Movie Review: Taking Woodstock
The Charlotte Observer
The great pitching coach Johnny Sain said of ballplayers, “The older they get, the better they were when they were younger.” That's true of the Woodstock festival, too.
It briefly astonished Americans who saw half a million kids partying in the rain and mud, but it was just one of a series of big outdoor concerts – post-Monterey, pre-Altamont and Watkins Glen – that brought rock bands together.
By the time I was in college (1971-75), folks had stopped talking about it. Yet here we are 40 years later, treating it as an iconic touchstone for a gray-haired generation, and director Ang Lee adds to the mythology with the sweet, gentle “Taking Woodstock.”
Neither Lee, who was in high school in Taiwan at the time, nor U.S. screenwriter James Schamus (then a 9-year-old) has first-hand knowledge of the festival.
They bring the bemused curiosity of outsiders to this story and give us a sense of the good-hearted craziness around the event, which actually took place about 40 miles from Woodstock in Winter Lake. (Lee often uses a split-screen to show this chaos; that's a tribute to Michael Wadleigh, who did the same thing in his Oscar-winning documentary “Woodstock.”)
The story focuses on Elliott Teichberg (Demetri Martin), who's closeted in many ways. He's a would-be promoter of the arts in a town that ignores them. He has a job in Manhattan but reluctantly toils part-time in his parents' run-down “resort,” one of many Jewish businesses near the edge of the Catskills. He's a homosexual who hasn't discovered his preference in a world where “gay” still means “festive.”
When promoter Michael Lang (charismatic Jonathan Groff) needs a place to stage his three-day bash, Elliott takes him to Max Yasgur (Eugene Levy), who owns a 600-acre dairy farm. The rest is history – but not the history of this movie, which never gets closer to the main stage than the top of a distant hill.
Instead, the film shows us Woodstock's effects on the Teichbergs and the town.
Elliott finds himself. Papa Teichberg (Henry Goodman) comes out of the shell into which he's retreated for 20 numb years. Mama Teichberg (the great Imelda Staunton) finally gets over the lifelong fear of poverty that crippled so many Jewish immigrants.
Meanwhile, Winter Lake learns to cope with everyone from a naked college theater troupe to an ex-Marine transvestite (Liev Schreiber). Even a troubled Vietnam vet, a badly drawn character Emile Hirsch doesn't quite know how to play, gets a new vibe.
The running joke is that no one reaches the core of the festival. They hear distant echoes of music and see the stream of humanity on foot, but their destiny is to remain on the fringe of history. Yet even there, the ripples of liberation affect most of them.
Isn't that why we treasure Woodstock today? It gave us a vision of America in which people looked beyond distinctions and inhibitions and prejudices. The dirt and free food and shared drugs made everyone briefly equal, in an unexpected realization of the dream of pure democracy.
That dream ended quickly. Lang mentions his next venture, a Rolling Stones concert three months later; we're supposed to know he means Altamont, where Hell's Angels bikers beat a concertgoer to death while providing “security” for the Rolling Stones.
But for a while, Woodstock represented a spirit of peaceful sharing that sometimes makes America great. That's what this native-born writer and immigrant director want us to remember.