31 August 2009 | Chris Knipp
Getting inside by hovering on the outskirts
Building a sweet coming-of-age comedy around a major American cultural event of the Sixties, 'Taking Woodstock' is lodged on the periphery of the legendary half-million-strong August 1969 "peace and love" rock concert held on Max Yasgur's 600-acre dairy farm near the hamlet of White Lake, in the town of Bethel, New York. While director Ang Lee gives perhaps the most vivid sense on film yet of what it might have been like to witness the event unfolding as a "townee," he approaches it crab-wise, getting inside it by hovering on the outskirts.
In a recent interview with Charlie Rose, Quentin Tarantino remarked at how hackneyed biopics are. He suggested the best way to depict the life of Elvis would be to make a movie about one day in the life -- say, the one when The King walked into Sun Records the first time. Lee takes a similar approach to the enormous muddy happening of August 15-18 1969 (this film is a 40th-anniversary celebration). After all it's been thoroughly covered by documentary filmmakers, and most of the acts were thoroughly filmed and recorded. But 'Taking Woodstock' partly trumps that real footage by depicting how the happening built like an invasion, focusing on some of the locals and the promoters and a couple of the acid heads but never even focusing on the stage at all.
This might sound like a Robert Altman knockoff, but it's really quite different. Lee isn't trying to build up Woodstock through lots of vignettes and pieces. This is more like Tolstoy's vision of the Battle of Waterloo, but instead of the battle itself, the distant noise and tumult is that of a concert with thousands swarmed around it. That's true for a moment or two, at least, and those moments are haunting. But Ang Lee is no Tolstoy (though he did his own peripheral (Civil) war picture in Ride with the Devil). In the end he doesn't focus on the battle at all. Though Lee's young protagonist, Elliot Teichberg (Demetri Martin), a gay Jewish every-youth and the dutiful son of an impoverished middle-aged couple whose decrepit motel has useless pretensions to being a Catskills resort, is depicted as making it all happen by, as head of the minuscule township's Chamber of Commerce, linking up charismatic, bushy-haired young promoter Michael Lang (Jonathan Groff) with enterprising dairyman Max Yasgur (Eugene Levy), Ellie remains a peripheral figure of the concert, not even the witness of any of the 32 acts performed on stage. Ang Lee's new film lacks the somewhat hackneyed solemnity and pretension of his (admittedly far more emotionally powerful) 'Brokeback Mountain' or (much more stylish) 'Lust, Caution,' but his idea of depicting a great event, like Breugel, by magnifying peripheral figures, is a nifty one.
Elliot Teichberg is the main such Breugel figure, but his parents, the long-suffering Jake (Henry Goodman), and the rigid, paranoid Sonia (Imelda Staunton) loom large for him and us, humble laborers who make the crucifixion come to life. So do the damaged but charismatic young Vietnam vet Billy (Emile Hirsch) and Vilma (Liev Schreiber), the drag queen security guard who's a link with Ellie's New York life as a budding interior decorator, and with the Stonewall riots that had happened just a couple weeks earlier when Elliot was in Lower Manhattan. And there are plenty of others, notably the VW Guy (Paul Dano) and VW Girl (Kelli Garner), who start Ellie on a wonderful acid trip in their van, becoming his guides on an introductory tour of psychedelics. Yeah, "you had to be there," but as hackneyed as the Trip trope is, this is a good one: in its details as in its overall approach, 'Taking Woodstock' often succeeds because it doesn't try too hard and is cozy, offhand, and humorous.
The Sixties aren't about heroics or style, but about getting down, smashing barriers, breaking free -- way-stations of the romantic experience and milestones in any coming-of-age. Woodstock didn't really happen on the stage but in the mud and vans and tents, and Lee shows it that way. Its realities also included an insufficient number of Porta Potties, and townspeople raging at Elliot and Max for making the event happen but then charging big fees for cabins or sandwiches or a drink of water. Elliot's own mother is one of these. But then, somebody gets Jake and Sonia high and they dance in the rain. The motorcycle cop comes to do crowd control and ends up wearing a flower and giving rides. It's corny, but it happened. On the other hand, the borderline caricature depictions of Jews, Schreiber's amiable but overly broad transvestite, and even Emile Hirsch's clichéd, if lively, battle-scarred vet, all could have been thought through better.
Broaching such large events even peripherally, Lee and his writers, James Schamus, Elliot Tiber (author of the source memoir) and Tom Monte, arguably do owe us a bit more of the sex, the bad trips, and the music itself -- which can't be left outside the story of a great concert, whether its protagonist got to the stage or not. If you look at the real people -- Michael Lang, for instance -- they were rougher and sexier than anybody in this movie. The images of Elliot Teichberg's coming-of-age are as lightweight as everything else, and in the superficial sketching of his gayness the movie is as bland as the ditsiest biopic. 'Taking Woodstock' is a sweet, gentle, easy take on events. But remember that it's a coming-of-age comedy that happens in the midst of a tumultuous event, and you'll see that the light touch is not invalid. This was not the great Bad Trip concert; it was the great Good Trip concert. And the light touch allows the film to feel comprehensive with delicacy and keep its focus on the young man's sensibility.