Much has been written about how Taking Woodstock is too lightweight for Ang Lee to have bothered with making. I don’t know. I do know that I loved this sweet, gentle film, and prize its charms and heart far more than the debatable weightiness of his Lust, Caution (2007). At the same time, let me admit that I am in sympathy with the whole Woodstock thing—even though I wasn’t there. Indeed, Taking Woodstock is the perfect movie for someone in my position, since its protagonist—while very much on the scene and responsible for it happening where it did—never actually makes it to the show.
It should be understood from the outset that Lee’s film isn’t about the concert itself. This is not a music film. We never see the groups perform. No concert footage is interpolated into the proceedings. Occasionally, we hear bits of the performances in the background—I caught Melanie singing “Beautiful People” and Country Joe and the Fish’s “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-To-Die Rag”—but that’s it. What Lee has made is a film about one person—Elliot Teichberg (Demetri Martin), a key player in the event—and his involvement in bringing Woodstock into being. Everything—including the aura of Woodstock and Elliot’s own evolution in the process—is built around that.
This isn’t a complex movie and it has a kind of shambling structure, which you’ll either find beguiling or slightly off-putting. It isn’t designed to build to a big climax. It’s more like life in that it just keeps going, assimilating the experiences into its fabric. The central situation finds Elliot—a painter and designer in New York City—returning to his parents’ rundown motel in the Catskills in order to help keep the bank from foreclosing. He sees a chance at making this work when the town of Wallkill pulls the permit out from under a rock concert—the one that happens to be, or turns into, Woodstock.
His original idea of renting his parents’ land to the concert promoters falls apart when it turns out most of the land is on the swampy side, but there’s this nearby dairy farm belonging to Max Yasgur (Eugene Levy in a surprisingly good, straight performance) that might just do. The motel, on the other hand, will still benefit as a kind of headquarters and from the obvious increase in business. At the same time, there’s the separate issue of Elliot coming to terms with being gay and coming out to his parents, which lies under the surface of much of the film. I do not, however, believe the word gay appears in the screenplay, nor is Elliot’s situation ever directly discussed, which is a refreshing approach.
There is much to admire in Lee’s film. While it captures the spirit of the time and the event—young people ready and willing to strip down in public at any time, the sense (real or illusory) of freedom and a new vision of community—Taking Woodstock can be very matter-of-fact about the purely mercenary side of things. The very hippie-esque head of the concert, Michael Lang (TV actor Jonathan Groff), may look like a cross between Donovan and Marc Bolan and pepper his conversation with “groovy” and “far out,” but he’s every inch a canny businessman out to make a buck—not above bribery or avoiding a paper trail. In the end, he may have come to believe the Woodstock ideal himself, but listen to his last words on his future plans. From our perspective, we know what will happen—and how unsustainable this ideal is, making it all bittersweet.
All the performances are solid, but special mention should be made of Liev Schreiber as Vilma, a transvestite ex-Marine whom Elliot puts in charge of security. Apart from dressing in women’s clothes and sporting blonde wigs, Schreiber does nothing to camp up his performance. It’s very straightforward—and somehow strangely moving and completely real. Elliot himself is amazed at how his father (Henry Goodman, Color Me Kubrick) and Vilma become friends and asks Vilma, “Does he know what you are?” To this Vilma merely tells Elliot, “It’s easier for people to know what I am because I know what I am.” This is the closest the movie gets to doing anything other than letting Elliot’s own sexuality just be.
This isn’t a big movie. But it is a movie with a big heart. If you hate the whole Woodstock business, are dismissive toward the 1960s and/or are simply belligerent about baby boomers, you’re not going to like Taking Woodstock. It’s that simple. If you aren’t in those categories, I highly recommend you see it. Rated R for graphic nudity, some sexual content, drug use and language.