Gathering of the Tribes
For someone who did not come to this country until his mid-twenties, Taiwan-born and –raised Ang Lee has displayed an acute eye for traditional and popular American culture. With invariable writer-co-producer James Schamus, in his eleventh feature, Taking Woodstock, the naturalized U.S. citizen takes on that seminal counterculture happening grown in fame and attendance since August 1969 in a Bethel, New York, field of mud.
This is, however, not about the music, familiar from albums and Michael Wadleigh’s Oscar-winning 1970 rockumentary, expanded in 1994 with forty additional minutes of footage. A few slight sounds drift in the background now, an updated Richie Havens covers end-credits, and the one band appearing is awful teen Hairy Pretzel. “Only a tiny piece of that story,” the script is adapted from Taking Woodstock: A True Story of A Riot, A Concert, and A Life, a variant coming-of-age by author, humorist and gay activist Elliot Tiber with Tom Monte.
Elliot (a feature starring debut for writer-comedian Demetri Martin) was born Eliyahu Teichberg in Brooklyn, and his growing up there is important, first, as initial “good vibes” link with concert idea man Michael Lang (Jonathan Groff, in his first film), and second as the background of his parents Sonia and Jake (Imelda Staunton, Henry Goodman), Russian Jewish immigrants who are decidedly not making a go of it with the El Monaco Motel/Cocktail Lounge & Bar bought in upstate White Lake.
An older sister has distanced herself from this failed, sad family and urges her brother to do likewise by returning to the City to pursue his stalled vague career in art and leave the folks to swim or probably sink up there. Youngest president ever of the moribund Bethel Chamber of Commerce, however, Elliot buys a one-dollar town permit in hopes of a theater “summer event” to stave off foreclosure. When “Wallkillians kill it,” the town of Wallkill rescinding permission for Woodstock Ventures’ planned music festival, Elliot offers his permit and the motel as a base, figuring that five thousand attendees and performers will be at least some business.
Hippies and technicians, all get ready for three days of peace, music and love on Max and Miriam Yasgur’s (Eugene Levy, Pippa Pearthree) neighboring dairy acres. The preparations, pre-concert gatherings, and concertgoers are done to death in multiple split screens, while the Republican townies protest the masses, nudity, drugs, profanity and traffic. Organized by family man Dan Hawkins (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), they don’t amount to much, however, nor does Dan’s traumatized, longhaired Vietnam vet brother Billy (Emile Hirsch).
Nor is there interest in the four hundred thousand who do make it in Love Bugs, psychedelic panel vans or pickups, to party, swim and dance in the buff, drop acid, smoke weed and slide in the black mud. Theirs is a lost innocence that, arguably, the film captures; but the toneless monosyllables and “very cool’s” and “groovy’s” grow quickly vapid or spacey, and a publicity guide to “Hippie Lingo” is representatively laughable with definitions of “freak out,” “roach clip,” “bread,” “head,” “pig,” “rap,” etc.
In the midst of family and event madhouse, Elliot is tolerant, shy, alone, and the heart of the tale is his coming out, with construction’s Paul (Darren Pettie) and especially the wise tutelage of no-nonsense cross-dressing ex-Marine security person Vilma (Liev Schreiber), who “know[s] what I am” and is the strongest and best character around.
Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts graduates Staunton and Goodman and their Bensonhurst-Borscht Belt accents are wildly miscast, the body-padded former embarrassingly stagey as penny-pincher kvetch who takes advantage and hides a secret. A final father-son heart-to-heart cannot right what is wrong in the film.
Lightweight comedy with adequate feel for moment, place and participants in time, Taking Woodstock either reflects the naïveté of that milieu, or else is itself naïve. Only at the very conclusion is there sharpness, in Mike’s hint of a free California concert with the Stones: fifteen weeks later, that would be Altamont Speedway, chaos, death and Gimme Shelter.
(Released by Focus Features and rated “R” for nudity, some sexual content, drug use and language.)