TAKING WOODSTOCK (2009)
It’s so hard to watch films about music during this time period and not wish I had been around for it. True story: My father is so impatient that he turned around on his way to Woodstock due to traffic. I will never forgive him for that. The film Taking Woodstock isn’t so much about the music as it is about the man who ‘saved’ it. That man is Elliot Tiber in reality, and this film is based off his book (co-written with Tom Monte) about how Woodstock came to be in his home town. It’s a film that is much more about a young man’s struggle with his family and his own identity; it’s a story of self-discovery, of independence,
and of becoming an adult.
Allow me to veer off into some trivia for you youngins: did you know that Woodstock didn’t actually take place in Woodstock, NY? The concert was actually supposed to take place in Wallkill, NY, but the residents objected to the idea of a bunch of unruly hippie-types running amok in their town. Woodstock actually took place in Bethel, NY, which only occurred when Tiber reached out to Woodstock Ventures (specifically a fellow named Michael Lang) and facilitated contact with local dairy farmer and landowner, Max Yasgur.
Ah, the merging of generations. Can you tell who is who?
Back to the film. The main character is Elliot Teichberg (clearly the role based on Elliot Tiber), played by the oddly-chosen comedian Demetri Martin (The Daily Show, Important Things with Demetri Martin). His parents, Jake and Sonia, are played by Henry Goodman (Mary Reilly, The Life and Death of Peter Sellers) and Imelda Staunton (a couple of Harry Potter films). His parents are Russian Jews, and his mom is portrayed in such a way that it made me rather uncomfortable. It’s possible that Elliott’s mother really WAS that way, but it had a lot of the “money-grubbing Jew” stereotyping that really gets to me. And yes, their Jewishness was definitely an issue in the film, as was Max Yasgur’s.
The Jews at the bank. What, they don't own it?
There’s a lot of tension that occurs because of their Jewishness, as well as Elliot’s sexuality. I have to say, I had a feeling from nearly the beginning that the character was supposed to be gay, and I got my confirmation later. There were a lot of implications but nothing overt until Woodstock was well underway because Elliot, though having participated in the Stonewall Riots (which isn’t directly mentioned in the film), was still pretty much “in the closet”, ESPECIALLY with his parents. And who could blame him for being concerned about that, given how his parents were portrayed? The interesting thing is that while his mother continues to be a basically terrible person, his father changes and grows, becoming a totally wonderful and lovable character. Part of that is due to the presence of Liev Shrieber…in drag (but possibly playing a transvestite… I am not really sure).
"Um, please don't hurt me, but I don't really think pink is your colour..."
The ‘muscle’ employed at Woodstock was apparently helmed by Vilma, seen above. Don’t let her appearance fool you– she’s packing (both heat and other ‘equipment’). She’s basically the wise one of the film, able to see the issues in Elliot’s life, forming a bond with his father, and basically just being a sort of fairy Godmother in the situation. Sidenote: This is Liev’s second time in drag for a film–see the film Mixed Nuts (the title isn’t about what you might think).
"Here's my number. Call me if there's a remake of 'To Wong Foo'."
As I said before, this film is largely about Elliot and his self-discovery. Much of that comes through the overwhelming aspects of the concert, and the fact that he was largely responsible, much to the chagrin of the townsfolk (at first, at least, until they start to gain MASSIVE profits), for Woodstock actually taking place in the middle of his hometown. He interacts with a number of people, he explores new ideas, and he opens himself up to some of the hippie movement’s more mind-altering aspects.
There’s also some interaction with childhood friend Billy, played by Emile Hirsch (Speed Racer, Into The Wild, Milk), who is now a Vietnam veteran with his fair share of problems. These scenes are interesting in some ways, as Billy seems to help Elliot overcome the burden of being the most hated person in his town, and adds to the general “damn the man” attitude of the hippie movement. However, some of the overlap seems to be a bit forced, and the ‘flashback’ moment was a bit bizarre in its hilarity.
Ah, the young Vietnam veteran look. It never gets old.
For a film that has its fair share of good actors, the film fell a bit flat with a number of performances. Liev Schrieber was amazingly likable in his ‘too good to be true’ sort of role, and Henry Goodman was so adorably lovable as Elliot’s old, but open-minded father. However, as much as I adore Demetri Martin’s comedy shtick, I wasn’t terribly thrilled with his performance, though I have to give him some credit for breaking through with a gay character (who has a heavy make-out scene with another guy…a yummy guy…yeah). Some of his delivery was wince-inducing, and he was very monotonous. Now, it seems that Elliot Tiber actually felt Demetri embodied much of what he was like at that time, but it didn’t translate as well on the screen. I didn’t find myself connecting with him, as our main character, and I really wanted to.
This is his 'Post-LSD' face, which is a lot like his 'I just made out with a hot guy' face, or his 'I can't believe Woodstock is happening here' face.
Then there were the lesser roles that were played by what I can only describe as ‘powerhouses’ who simply were not utilized as well as they could have been. Eugene Levy (American Pie, practically any Christopher Guest film [LOOK HIM UP AND SEE HIS MOCKUMENTARIES] such as Best In Show and A Mighty Wind) plays Max Yasgur, the dairy farmer who is willing to give these young hippies a chance with his land; Jeffrey Dean Morgan (Watchmen) plays Dan, a towns person (and Billy’s brother) who thinks the bureaucracy of the town is silly and also leads the hatefest against Elliot for bringing the hippies to town; and Jonathan Groff (“Glee”, Broadway shows) plays Woodstock organizer and essentially creator, Michael Lang.
That hair is not a joke-- that was Lang's look at the time.
I thought they were each rather strong in their roles, and I have seen their acting abilities before, but I was a bit saddened by their lack of screentime–especially in Levy’s case. Is that the fault of the actual story? Maybe, but the fact that these characters rarely graced the screen was made much more notable by the length of the film, which was far too long for what it was.
Like how the ride to the festival took forever, both in reality and onscreen.
Which brings me to the film’s director, Ang Lee. Ang seems to treat some of his films with a certain amount of delicacy, which can definitely be beneficial. We saw that in Brokeback Mountain. However, it seemed to hamper this film, as the chaos of the time and situation seemed to demand a little less sentimentality, regardless of the focus on Elliot’s life. Some of this is also the fault of the screenplay, written by James Schamus (Hulk). There was too much pondering, too much lingering, too much extrapolating. The pacing was slow, sometimes arduously so. And for a film that takes place around Woodstock, there was a surprising lack of music, which wasn’t a problem thematically or story-wise (as there’s a reason why this makes sense) but is sort of conspicuous to the viewer considering the strong connotations with the film’s title and the festival it references.
"Over there is where there will be a 'music festival', but we basically won't hear ANY of it."
Speaking music, I was surprised to see Danny Elfman’s name in the credits, and even more surprised to hear how… un-Elfman-like his score was. It fit the film. and it was good, as per usual. I adore Danny Elfman, so I may be a bit biased with my opinions on his work, but when he goes outside of the ‘norm’ for him (as in, practically anything he writes for Tim Burton’s films), he often pleasantly surprises me with his talent. It’s just wonderfully refreshing when I get to hear his musical talents applied in a different fashion, and I am always amazed by his immense capabilities with his lack of classical training. He’s simply one of the best composers working in Hollywood, and I love his work. I’ll end the gushing here.
I'm feeling equally goofy after that lovefest.
Do I recommend this film? Eh. This is another one of my dodgy answers. It’s a fascinating film because of the subject matter and the time period– I just love the music of this time, and I am fascinated by many things related to the mid-late 60s into the early 70s, so it was an interesting watch for me. However, I don’t think it was executed as well as it could have been. It may be that some of it felt almost too “inside”; as a person who was not alive during this time period, and someone who hasn’t memorized every piece of footage from Woodstock, some of the references alluded me. And yet, there’s something to be said for the other side of the story–that is, the background to Woodstock and how it came to be in Bethel. Elliot actually is an interesting person in reality, but I feel like the film short-changed him. It’s possible that he was that bland and wimpy at the time, but I just feel like someone who was aspiring to be an artist, living in New York city and engaged in the gay community there, and a participant in Stonewall would be a bit more engaging that what we got. Anyway, if you are interested in Woodstock, I’d watch this film as well as the actual-footage film Woodstock. If you’re not so into this sort of thing, I think you should probably steer clear.