reviewed by Marc Glassman
Ang Lee, director. James Schamus, script based on Elliot Tiber’s memoir co-written by Tom Monte. Starring: Demetri Martin (Elliot Tiber), Imelda Staunton (Sonia Teichberg), Henry Goodman (Jack Teichberg), Liev Schreiber (Vilma), Jonathan Groff (Michael Lang), Emile Hirsch (Billy), Paul Dano and Kelli Garner (hippie couple), Jeffrey Dean Morgan (Dan, Billy’s brother), Eugene Levy (Max Yasgur), Mamie Gummer (Lang’s assistant), Dan Fogler (head of theatre company)
As everyone surely knows by now, an astonishing number of events took place during the summer of 1969. The first landing of a human being on the moon, the Stonewall riots, the Manson murders and the Woodstock festival all took place within a few weeks of each other during a time when the war in Vietnam was raging, sexual liberation was nearing a peak and rock’n’roll music provided a soundtrack for a generation.
Up in Bethel, New York, a young Jewish closeted homosexual named Elliot Tiber, possibly feeling liberated by the pro-Gay Stonewall riots, offered to help struggling promoters to place their music festival in his sleepy community in the Catskills area of upstate New York. How Tiber—formerly Teichberg—and those rock impresarios, led by Michael Lang, transformed the area into the site of the biggest festival anyone had ever experienced is the subject of Taking Woodstock, Ang Lee’s new comedy.
An eclectic director whose credits include a Jane Austen adaptation (Sense and Sensibility), a martial arts fantasy film (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), a superhero flick (Hulk) and a gay Western (Brokeback Mountain), Lee has taken on something new here. Taking Woodstock is a generation gap comedy in which non-conformists—gay and straight—take on the “Establishment” and win, at least for a weekend. That “establishment” is represented by a wide variety of people ranging from Tiber’s quarreling, controlling but loving parents, to an angry populace of conservative small town denizens to former combatants in the Vietnam War.
The plot, such as it is, follows Elliot’s transformation from a young man determined to help his parents and the community out of the economic doldrums—with a small classic music fest, no less!—to an LSC-dropping, out of the closet, young radical. Loose, funny and slightly anarchical, Taking Woodstock ventures into the famed “3 days of peace, love and music” concerts for the last 35 minutes of the film.
A greater weakness is the meandering quality of the narrative. No one owns this story—not Elliot, nor his parents or even Liev Schreiber as a talkative transvestite called Vilma. We get the “fun” aspect of the ‘60s, but not its downside.
But maybe it doesn’t matter, man! This memoir/movie is well acted and does cover a great moment in history through a loopy style that’s wholly consistent with the intentions of the film. Is it Woodstock? No, but we have the wonderful doc to show you what “really” happened. Taking Woodstock is light and breezy—true summer fare—and maybe that’s enough.