Taking Woodstock (2009) Dir. Ang Lee
3 days of peace, love and music, and an ocean of young people. That’s Woodstock! You wanna know how it started?
Ang Lee’s movie takes us to the backstage of the backstage of the original Woodstock of ‘69. It starts a few days (maybe, it was weeks) before the festival. We meet Elliot Tiber (Demetri Martin), a young guy still living with his parents in an old, damaged motel (basically, it’s a ruin with no one wanting to stay there). His parents, Jake and Sonia Teichberg (Henry Goodman and Imelda Staunton, respectively), are a curious couple – she is a harsh, cunning, bossy woman ordering her husband around, and he – he doesn’t mind. One sunny summer day, Elliot decides to organize a music festival. He calls Michael Lang (Jonathan Groff) and other producers of the festival to invite them to organize it in his place. This innocent action triggers a chain of amazing events resulting in the biggest and most memorable music event in the history.
The movie focuses on Elliot’s story. First, it shows a typical young guy, like many other young people in his generation, who can’t get away from his parents. He tries to break through and become independent, but he somehow feels obliged to help them. He wants to follow his dreams to go to California, but at the same time he’s loyal to his family. He’s torn apart by his doubts, but eventually he takes matters in his own hands and wins – mentally and financially. Not only does Elliot struggle with money problems, but also his homosexuality. Yet, this time it’s not presented as a life-changing issue (as it is in “Brokeback Mountain” by the same director). It’s sexual revolution; free love is in the air. Hence, as paradoxical as it may appear, it’s easier for Elliot to come out of the closet.
The movie is mostly a comedy with a few drama moments. Yet, it also present an issue of Vietnam war and the Vietnam experience. There’s only one Vietnam war veteran, Billy (Emile Hirsch), but his character is very important. He symbolizes the trauma of the war. We expect him to run around with a fake gun and hallucinate about enemies hiding in the woods, and he does; however, he ridicules that, as well. We never know how damaged he actually is. Then, there’s my favorite moment: the hill scene. Billy talks about all the things that had happened at the top of the hill before he went to Vietnam. Yes, the very same hill where the concert takes place. Hirsch brilliantly conveys the nostalgia about the past and the personal tragedy of all the fellow Vietnam veterans. It’s touching, but by no means sentimental.
I always pay special attention to acting. In this case, it’s one of the strongest elements. We have Demetri Martin, who shows us a regular, likeable and funny guy we can identify with. There’s Imelda Staunton, who may not be likeable, but introduces a lot of comic relief moments. Her harsh and down-to-earth attitude is disturbingly convincing. I’ve already mentioned talented Emile Hirsch. Finally, we meet Liev Schreiber as none other than Vilma, a transvestite bodyguard making sure the peace is not disturbed. Schreiber sure knows how to wear a dress and high heels. We immediately like him. He brings joy, and helps Elliot’s family with a warm, familiar smile. Last but not least, there’s debuting Jonathan Groff as Michael Lang, the Woodstock organizer. Groff is fresh and as cute as a cupcake. It’s a pleasure to look at him. He projects amazing peacefulness. He symbolizes all the flower children with all their values. It’s hard to forget his gentle, yet flirty smile.
In conclusion, “Taking Woodstock” intents to show how the festival was organized, and how much fun and troubles they all had with it. The summer of ’69 is real and alive: we see young, beautiful people with long hair, we feel the atmosphere of love, and we sense it is grand. My only reservation concerns the plot – at some point, the story becomes weak. It suggests to us it’s already the end, but there’s still some more scenes to go. It loses coherency and consistency. Apart from this, I don’t find any other weak points. It’s funny, witty, visually pleasant, with good acting and very good music (although there’s no concert scenes at all). The best way to commemorate the most important 3 days of love, peace and music!
Long days, pleasant nights,