REVIEW: Taking Woodstock [2009]

“Like ants making thunder”

Truthfully, I believe that the thing so many detractors point to concerning Taking Woodstock is my favorite part of the whole endeavor. I thought that the trailers did a very good job of explaining that Ang Lee was telling a story about the behind the scenes construction of the festival, using Elliot Tiber’s story of saving his parents motel and putting their sleepy little town on the map. If you want to see the concert and the music and the artists, rent Woodstock the documentary. Even when the show is in full swing, you never get closer than a glimmer of light at the center of a sea of people because it is not about the music. This is peace, love, and disharmony, showing the partiers, the hippies, the money men, and the international melting pot mixing together for an event the world had never seen. It is the reawakening of two elderly Jewish immigrants who have been waiting to die and the sexual awakening for Tiber himself, finally able to toss the suit aside and figure out who he truly is. The music is just the catalyst for all the human intricacies to come out.

It begins with Tiber’s return home, attempting to save his parents from having the bank foreclose on their livelihood. The motel is in shambles—dirty sheets, an empty pool, and towels are an extra buck to use. By being the new town commerce department president, Tiber works his way towards a permit to have his annual music festival, or evening of record playing outdoors, and a new information booth to be erected and drive traffic in to stay at the motel. Here is the prodigal son returned, getting hellos and welcome backs from everyone in town, glad to have a young person with vision in Bethel. Money is tighter than ever, though, and his friends from the city are moving to San Francisco, so the sober realization that he has locked himself into a season made of a slow death makes him pay extra attention to the fact that the Woodstock Festival just got run out of town close by. With a permit already signed for music, a willing neighbor in Eugene Levy’s dairy farmer Max Yasgur to supply land, and a surprising past friendship with the show’s organizer Michael Lang, the stars appear to be aligned for Tiber to work some magic. The townsfolk no longer feel too happy to have him back though.

Demetri Martin doe a real good job at showing the shy and reserved Tiber, slowly discovering the man he wants to be. By watching his parents break out of their funk—Imelda Staunton is fantastic as the old woman manufacturing anti-Semitism to guilt her way to what she wants and Henry Goodman shines as the father finally able to express himself to his son, having more than just his wife to spend time with—he starts to envision a future. They now have the money to hire help with the mortgage paid off; he can move along and create a name for himself somewhere knowing they will be okay alone. But, of course, things are not that cut and dry. Secrets are uncovered within the family that cause what should be a joyous time to be sadly unsatisfying, yet their discovery allows for a move towards the future. And through it all we see the concertgoers arriving, organizers getting details ready for the show, and just a plethora of unique individuals passing by and interacting with Tiber as he journeys through the mass of humanity.

All the real moments of clarity come from these people periodically entering and exiting the film. There is Emile Hirsch’s Vietnam veteran, ravaged by flashbacks and an unsympathetic brother in Jeffrey Dean Morgan, that allows the harmonious joy to wash over him, bringing back memories from before the horrors overseas; there is Paul Dano and Kelli Garner as tripped out hippies, adding some entertainment despite being involved in the most unnecessary scene of the movie with the prerequisite drug-induced colors and movement of static objects; and there’s Liev Schreiber’s cross-dressing, ex-Marine, head of security, doubling as the sage-like voice of reason for the Teichberg family, seeing the love they have for son Tiber as well as Elliot’s blindness to that expression. I would actually compare the film to something like Bobby, not as good mind you, but a similar film using a historical event to show intertwining stories occurring on its outskirts. Even though everything revolves around this young man, it really is the characters that resonate rather than the story they are taking part in.

Ang Lee appears to really enjoy the split-screen, bringing it back from his Hulk days, but in much better use here. Whereas the gimmick back then was to give a comic book feel, showing the exact same thing three times from different angles, the current utilization displays the numerous activities going on, the comradery, the nudity, and the enjoyment of a weekend away from the constraints of capitalism as collage. This film is a slice of life, a sprawling epic about the people instead of the event itself, and that’s exactly why I enjoyed it as much as I did. Everyone is crazy in some respect and watching them act insane is a lot of fun amongst the details of the time. The mudslides are in full use, every piece of metal is electrified come day three, and the chocolate milk is delicious. Taking Woodstock may not be some profound tale that needed to be brought in front of cameras, but it is a piece of history and nostalgic look back to a time when rock and roll could enrage a town and unite it. You don’t have to look farther than good ol’ Annie played by Bette Henritze, loving the yoga classes and the no longer vacant hotel rooms at her establishment. Sometimes you just have to let loose for once and live.

Taking Woodstock 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

[1] (Left to right) Jonathan Groff, Richard Thomas, Demetri Martin, and Adam Pally star in Academy Award-winning director Ang Lee’s Taking Woodstock, a Focus Features release. Photo Credit: Ken Regan
[2] Emile Hirsch stars as Vietnam veteran Billy in Academy Award-winning director Ang Lee’s Taking Woodstock, a Focus Features release. Photo Credit: Ken Regan


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