Eye For Film >> Movies >> Taking Woodstock (2009) Film Review
Say what you like about Ang Lee, but you’ve got to applaud his determination never to make the same film twice.
Since his breakthrough double-whammy of The Wedding Banquet and Eat Drink Man Woman in the early Nineties he’s tried everything from Jane Austen adaptations (Sense And Sensibility) to big-budget comic book blockbusters (Hulk) by way of Watergate-era domestic dramas (The Ice Storm) and Second World War espionage thrillers (Lust, Caution).
He’s also made two of the finest Westerns of the modern era, the underrated Ride With The Devil and the justly-celebrated Brokeback Mountain. It hasn’t been an unbroken run of success but his desire to constantly seek new challenges and (to paraphrase a famous quote from Ridley Scott) "try everything that the sweet shop has to offer" has to be applauded when so many directors are content to churn out variations on a theme.
If you had to pick out common motifs in such a diverse body of work, the demands and rewards of family and friendship loom fairly large, as well as the desire to take control of your destiny. All are present and correct in Taking Woodstock, a loving and gently funny take on one of the defining moments of America’s counter-culture era.
It tells the true story of Elliot Tiber (Demetri Martin), an interior designer and would-be artist in late Sixties New York, who regularly finds himself journeying back to his parents’ dilapidated motel in the Catskills mountains to keep the bank from foreclosing. He also uses his position on the local chamber of commerce to promote grandiose but impractical business and cultural schemes to transform the area.
The farmers and small business owners who make up the rest of the board listen with polite apathy. But when Elliot hears that a neighbouring ‘burg has turned down a licence application for a "hippie music festival" he sees an opportunity. He contacts festival promoter Michael Lang (Jonathan Groff) and persuades local farmer Max Yasgur (Eugene Levy) to lease his land for what looks set to be a minor three-day ‘happening’.
But before he knows it, Elliot finds himself surrounded by helicopter-loads of entrepreneurs, lawyers and agents. The motel, a run-down operation ruled over by his cheese-paring mum (Imelda Staunton) and amiable, henpecked dad (Henry Goodman) finds itself the main accommodation site and ticket agency. And when Elliot, after an ill-advised jazz fag to calm his nerves before the first press conference, gives the impression that the event’s free the hippies start converging in their thousands...
The period detail is lovingly recreated, and the use of split-screen camerawork is (I presume) a deliberate nod to Michael Wadleigh’s epic documentary on the festival. But the film isn’t so much about the event itself as its impact on Elliot’s relationship with his family and the other townspeople.
They’re understandably none too pleased at having half a million free-loving herbally refreshed ‘weirdos’ descend on their community. But the hostility towards Elliot, who’s both Jewish and gay, soon takes on a nastily personal tone. Meanwhile, Mamma Tiber is busily taking advantage of the festival-goers, charging exorbitant prices for everything and dividing rooms into three to make more money.
Elliot begins to wonder why he’s wasting his life on the thankless task of propping up the family business in the middle of Hicksville, and the lifestyle of the Woodstock organisers – liberated and laid-back, but obviously making shedloads of money from pursuing their dream – begins to look very seductive...
The film does meander a little too much, and Lee’s desire to cram in a bit of everything – a recreation of the ‘mudslide’ scenes when the rain starts coming down, an extended LSD trip sequence – means that some of the character interplay (particularly a burgeoning romance between Elliot and one of the stage construction crew) feels under-developed.
Some of the character’s themselves veer a little too far towards stereotype – Staunton’s grasping, perpetually aggrieved Yiddisher mama and Emile Hirsch as a local golden boy turned traumatised Vietvet being particular offenders. But Martin (formerly better known as a stand-up comic) holds it all together with a very believable performance as a still immature young man, whose life has been one of some success but not much experience, realising that there’s another world out there, one where the old prejudices might not exist any more.
And there are plenty of other cracking turns from the more ‘indie’ end of Hollywood’s top drawer. Liev Schreiber is on particularly good form as a cross-dressing ex-Marine who provides ‘security’ when the local mobsters try to muscle in on the action. And Paul Dano’s a long way from the weaselly preacher of There Will Be Blood as the hippie who helps take Elliot on the full ‘festival experience’.
The view is somewhat rose-tinted, perhaps partly explained by Lee’s outsider fascination with the hippie era (as he pointed out in a recent Empire interview, Taiwan in the Sixties was the front-line of the Cold War and having long hair was an offence punishable by a trip to a special police barber’s van). But once again, he brings a freshness and a sense of wonder to classically American subject matter - the transformation of a beautiful but sleepily conservative landscape into the centre of the counter-cultural universe. And he does convey the sense, that, like it or not, the event marked the point when it was impossible to deny that a country’s perception of itself would never be quite the same again.
Maybe not his best, but like all his films it’s solidly professional and entertaining with a few surprises along the way. It’s anyone’s guess what he’ll do next (though the mooted adaptation of Yann Martel’s magic realist masterpiece Life Of Pi is a mouth-watering prospect) but whatever it is I’ll look forward to it.Reviewed on: 28 Oct 2009