The first thing you need to realize about Ang Lee’s new film, "Taking Woodstock," is: It ain’t about the music. Oh, it’s about the 40-year-old hippiefest, then billed as "three days of peace and music." But in this brilliantly entertaining version of the event, to paraphrase a lyric from the time, "somethin’ else is happenin’ here."
Lee has an uncanny ability to capture the American culture of the past without going freaky-deaky overboard. His films can be methodical, even plodding — "Woodstock" takes awhile to get rolling — but they are always authentic and unexpectedly honed. He makes period pieces that seem to be part of their eras even with the perspective of today, not woozy reveries that idealize the past.
The conceit of the film is that Woodstock almost didn’t happen until a nebbish named Eliot Tiber (Demitri Martin, pictured above left) wooed the organizers (led by Jonathan Groff, playing a placid super-hippie) to his small Catskills town as a way of saving his parents’ fleabag motel. How it happened, and what it meant, make this a procedural more than a concert film, but one with existential aspirations: Woodstock — a muddy, cravenly commercial drug party — ended up becoming what its creators only pretended it could be: A watershed moment in the counterculture that opened up America to true social modernism.
Lee has gone gay so much at the movies ("The Wedding Banquet," "Brokeback Mountain"), we probably shouldn’t be surprised by it when it emerges suddenly here, but the organic way the sexuality of Eliot emerges (first hinted at, then gingerly and realistically explored without switching the focus of the story) — and the jolt of absurdist energy when Liev Schreiber (pictured above right) appears, playing a cross-dressing ex-Marine and ass-kicking security expert named Vilma — builds layers on the theme of the film. The audience begins to understand its role as a rite of passage for repressed youth. And it does so with lots of full-frontal frolicking by hot guys.
There’s a visual dynamism — split screens, long tracking shots — to the film that not only pays homage to the mod-looking films of the 1960s (especially one obvious allusion to Godard’s "Weekend") but also creates the same sensory of Woodstock itself: overloading, distracting and immersive, but always compelling.
The script subtly invokes much of the cultural tumult of the summer of 1969, from the moon landing to the death of Judy Garland (and, implicitly, Stonewall) without devolving into History Channel territory.
Lee and his screenwriter, James Schamus, do stumble with the character of Billy (played by Emile Hirsch), a shell-shocked vet who, like Wooderson in "Dazed and Confused," serves as the stoner-philosopher in the piece, but the part goes nowhere and even seems to trivialize PTSD. But the performances by Schreiber (who gets some of the best lines), Martin and especially Imelda Staunton as Eliot’s battle-axe of a mom (expect to see her in the Oscar race).
"Taking Woodstock" may not be the definitive ’60s film, but it’s a trip. In more ways than one.
— Arnold Wayne Jones
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition August 28, 2009.